Hsiung Ping-chen

Hsiung Ping-Chen
Professor of History

Hsiung Ping-chen is a Professor of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who also carries the capacities of the Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor and the Director of the Research Institute for the Humanities at the university. She served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at The Chinese University of Hong Kong from 2009 to 2011, and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Taiwan Central University from 2004 to 2007. Also, Prof Hsiung has been serving as the Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taipei since 1990, and K.T. Li Chair at Central University in Taiwan since 2006. An internationally renowned scholar in her field, she has also made remarkable achievements in academic administration.

Having received her B.A. in History from Taiwan University, she furthered her studies in the US and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Brown University and her S.M. in Population Studies and International Health from the School of Public Health at Harvard University. Her research interest lies in the areas of women’s and children’s health, gender and family relations, and intellectual and social history of early modern/modern China and Europe. She served as Director of the Humanities Centre at the Central University in Taiwan, and played an instrumental role in founding the interdisciplinary group ‘Ming-Ch’ing Studies’ at the Academia Sinica. Over the years, Professor Hsiung has held visiting professorships at many leading academic institutions in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, including UCLA, Cornell University, University of Michigan, Freie Universitat Berlin, and Keio University, Japan.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong
President, Asian New Humanities Net (ANHN)
(852) 3943 7134

The past and the present. What does the history of infants tell us?

Childhood becomes a social, spiritual and historical journey for Ping-chen Hsiung, History professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has dedicated most of her 40-year-spanning academic career to the study of infants and children in ancient China.

As the West has continually seen childhood as just the first steps taken into the richer and wider phases of life, Hsiung’s studies focus on the spiritual and social roles of the child we all were once, and how the maintenance of this role represents a key to understanding the role we take on as adults.

As well as her position as a History Professor, Hsiung’s takes the seat as the Director of the Center for Taiwan studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and her broad academic experience and research on childhood and infancy in China can be found surmised in her book A Tender Voyage, where she exposes through an interdisciplinary approach the comparisons standing between how we view children in the West, and how they were seen in China hundreds of years ago, in order to extract, from a view of the past in contrast to the present, the path to a more tender future.

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Nerina: Today, I am sharing with you a conversation that I had a year ago with Ping-chen Hsiung. She’s a professor of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and she has done pioneering work on childhood in China. One of her favorite quotes id “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man”, by Aristotle.

Hsiung: I am Hsiung Ping-chen, professor of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I am a trained historian, but I also have a secondary field in Public Health.

My main research topic is History of infants and young children in late imperial China, studied from interdisciplinary and comparative perspective. This is trying to answer historically how human life becomes possible, namely what happens every day now in the modern society whenever you give birth to a child. You expect this child to make it in life, but that’s not the given in pre-modern societies, so I wanted to answer that question, and given that Chinese documentation tends to be rich and available in many, many different angles from different areas, I started this study from Chinese sources, and then compared to information as we know it from England, Sweden, Japan, India, and colonial America. Then, I try to study it from historical texts left by pediatricians, by art historians, by objects and things, so it required an interdisciplinary angle.

Nerina: How did you get interested in this topic?

Hsiung: I was very curious, when I was maybe 7 or 8, about how we as very young children – preschool children – have a sense of identity, therefore when I was I teenager and saw the cover of The Second Sex – only the cover at the bookstore -, I thought maybe the second sex was about children and childhood, as a second identity. I opened it up and discovered it was about women and was a bit disappointed, although I am a woman, and thought therefore children should be called the third sex, that is: children as an independent domain in terms of their sense of self, their interests, the games they play, their everyday sentiments. If you see their behavior or other things that you now know, people acknowledge that age as a factor, and the phases of life – human life, however it is understood in different societies, at different times -, actually form a kind of a different existential sentiment.

How I got interested? I was just very curious. I went to college and picked History as a major at the National Taiwan University in 1971. I assumed that this was an often studied subject, and therefore you could just take a course called Childhood in World History, but I looked it up as a freshman and never found it. I graduated with a History major, then I went out to History graduate school at Brown University in the United States and got a degree in History and started teaching. By the end of the early 80’s, I discovered that, really, I had nothing studied. I was very surprised and couldn’t sleep with the idea of not knowing.

I knew by then that there was material to answer that question, so I decided I should just answer my own question so that whenever *4:30, unintelligible*

Nerina: What can we learn from this topic?

Hsiung: We discovered the details of how infants where brought from their first 24 hours, first week, first month, first year, and why they celebrated when they got to live, and that’s in the technical aspect. But also in that we see how people treasure life, because death, or not living, is a constant reality, and so I wrote my book that’s published in English – I published three monographs in Chinese and one in English on the subject. Published in 2005 by Stanford Press, it’s called A Tender Voyage, which is a rendition of a Chinese Buddhist term called Tz’u-hung, meaning that Indian Buddhism assumed that life is an endless suffering and so people would have to get out of this vicious cycle, but Chinese Buddhists, when they saw Indian Buddhism, they thought that the way to get out of this challenging situation is through compassion and mutual help, so that is called Tz’u-hung, a tender voyage where people could help each other to get through this very difficult journey called life.

Nerina: I wanted to know more about this book and there are different reviews about it. This is by Pei-yi Wu and you can read:

“Since Phillip Ariees groundbreaking and provocative book L’Enfant et la vie famillialle sou l’ancien régime was published in 1960, the West has been inundated with books on the history of children and childhood.”

Hsiung: The French book was actually translated into English and other languages starting in the 70’s and 80’s; I started my study at roughly that same period. That book made a very bold and startling, but also challenging, assumption, in Western Europe, or France, primarily, that childhood may be a modern invention. It has since been studied and responded by European historians, and turned out not to be the case, but still, that was a good start in terms of the discovery of childhood studies.

Nerina: The book consists of three parts; Part One is about the physical conditions, and this contains the most original and important findings: In contrast to Europe, specialized medicine for children appeared considerably earlier in China. The beginning of practicing pediatrics started at least since the second half of the ninth century.

Part number two is about social life, and here professor Hsiung gathered information from more than eight hundred chronological biographies. One fully developed topic is the bond between mother and son; we can read the depth and duration of this bond had few parallels in other societies and greatly mitigated the effects of patriarchy.

In part number three, that is about, for example, girlhood, I feel that there is also an interest in aspect, when she says; to further confront the superficial impression that gender prejudice could have worked only to the advantage of boys, it is useful to look at the privilege a young girl might have had in emotional warmth from family elders. Most families, if made to disclose, indicated their favorite child to be a daughter. Interesting perspective and, I feel, really interesting book.

What was childhood about?

Hsiung: You know, when people now speak of children or childhood or infants, because of the modern experience, since the nineteenth century originated in Europe but now it’s everywhere, people tend to think of human existence as defined by the biophysical existence, therefore they’re thinking about ‘infant’ and ‘child’ in a logical sense. That is, the earlier phase of a person’s life and of someone who is very small and needs tenderness; but if you look at the Chinese documents, it started off as understanding ‘infant’ and ‘child, the concept in three ways.

There’s the basic fundamental ways, which Chinese pediatricians share with everybody else, that have to look after the illness of a four month old or a two year old, which had a different physiological condition as opposed to sixteen year old adults. But then comes a second understanding, which is what we called a ‘social child’, that is a role, a status. Chinese people, because they would pay respect to their ancestors, so in Chinese New Year, including people who were in their sixties or seventies, would assume their role as the offspring of a genealogy; even the Emperor, the head of their empire, called himself Son of Heaven, which means that he is a junior, and that’s a basic humility and also it’s a generational concept that assumes that there’s people before you and there’s people after you. So, that’s the second definition.

The third definition, actually, is an existential and ethical understanding of infancy and childhood. That’s the understanding that, eventually, everybody would go back to become an infant; it’s something that’s cultivated, and if you look at, say, Charlie Brown or some painting, they’re people would always be a child, always a five year old, always a three year old. Because at that time people didn’t have a notion of time as a lineal progression, so people think ‘Ok, you could stay forever young’ or that you do your exercise and cultivate, and you would become a child again.

I think those three different ways of understanding the beginnings of life and the existential state and the social role, at least allow people to have multiple choices, and it’s a good cultural diversity, I would say. That is something that Chinese, or the habitants of continental East Asia, happen to start up with. I don’t like to say that Chinese civilization always held secrets to everything else, or that’s it’s older, because I think the relations between different cultures and civilizations is not a competition about who’s winning, who’s coming better, or who’s wiser, or smarter, or better; I just think that different people living in different circumstances in different places happen to have different notions, ideas, and practices, and this is one thing that I discovered in my studies and that I would like to share.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learned?

Hsiung: When I talk about my studies, people always say ‘Oh, how can you document stories of six month infants from hundreds of years ago?’, and I say ‘Of course you could, as long as you give it your hardest attention and time’, because I think, as historians, we could also document silence, and then to interpret the empty space. The people whose lives have vanished will be just like the open space in the painting; there’s always the void. What is not there helps us understand and interpret what’s there. We have to be able, as historians, to document the missing lives and the empty spaces and the silences better.

Nerina: How can we use our past, our different pasts, to create our common future?

Hsiung: I think that historical relations have stored a database of circumstances. How they worked and enjoyed and endured these circumstances, so it would be a loss if it’s like a forest; if you only decided to preserve the most useful plant for current cosederation, the you would lose a lot, because in the forest, in the water, you want all forms of life to be able to carry on. So I certainly would like, when I talk to people in social sciences, to work with more contemporary data, or to think about future problems, I would say that this is also useful information. They’re humans too, and then it would be a shame if we decided to drop that and assume that we could still have enough information and inspiration and all kinds of stories to carry on for the future.

I also hope that humanities and art would not have such a confrontational relation with science and people who have other interests, because I see, in all kinds of real circumstances, unique people with different expertise, different experience, different interests, with common work together. No singular subject or discipline could complete a service or a task without the help of other people.

Nerina: If you could travel through time, is there a time you’d like to view? Is there a person you would ask something in the past?

Hsiung: If I were to be able to travel back in time. I know there are times and places where people really mingled and boundaries did not matter as much. For instance, in the Asian border, between the sixth and ninth century; I would like to be there.

I have just been to *foreign city name, can’t hear it right, 16:45*, because I know that there are Indian eye doctors who would fix people’s eyes, there are Persian musicians who would perform their show, and all kinds of traders, and people who spoke all kinds of languages, so that would be the kind of place that would satisfy my curiosity.

Nerina: What kind of question would you have for them?

Hsiung: Oh, no. It would just me going to the market everyday: I love to look at things, I like to go to different markets and to see what life has to offer. I don’t have any particular informative questions to ask them, but I think it would be a to to see how life flourishes in places and times when boundaries mattered less and when people mingled more easily.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Hsiung: I have lots and lots of dreams. I actually have a lot of real dreams every day; I dream easily, and even when I doze off for a few minutes I can have a dream, and sometimes, I can’t tell the difference between the cream and real life. I tend to think that the difference between dreams and real life is that the dreams that you have are so real, that they could become real life in the next step.

Nerina: What is your next book?

Hsiung: My next book is going to be documenting the life of a provincial intellectual in seventeenth century China, who somehow, because of his of sort of failed life, dreamed of something big, and then people said three hundred years later that he’s very modern. This is the book I’m publishing.

In terms of projects, because I have studied infants and children for thirty years, now I’m looking at the other end, meaning aging understood and observed cross-culturally.

Nerina: You research on childhood, and you are going to research the end of life. What is life about?

Hsiung: What is life about? You know, as I said, it shouldn’t only be about physical existence. It includes life socially, culturally, but it should also define affinity. I also teach History of Family, and I say ‘Your closest ones may not be the blood kin. It could be the people who rub shoulders with you when you have a flat tire in the winter, when people stop and help you. That’s your closest kin’.

What is life? It depends, but I would say life is what you decide to make of it.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Hsiung.

Thank you so much for watching, thank you so much for listening. Keep wondering, and see you soon again. Bye and ciao.


Hsiung Ping-chen is a Professor of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who also carries the capacities of the Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor and the Director of the Research Institute for the Humanities at the university. She served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at The Chinese University of Hong Kong from 2009 to 2011, and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Taiwan Central University from 2004 to 2007. Also, Prof Hsiung has been serving as the Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taipei since 1990, and K.T. Li Chair at Central University in Taiwan since 2006. An internationally renowned scholar in her field, she has also made remarkable achievements in academic administration.

Having received her B.A. in History from Taiwan University, she furthered her studies in the US and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Brown University and her S.M. in Population Studies and International Health from the School of Public Health at Harvard University. Her research interest lies in the areas of women’s and children’s health, gender and family relations, and intellectual and social history of early modern/modern China and Europe. She served as Director of the Humanities Centre at the Central University in Taiwan, and played an instrumental role in founding the interdisciplinary group ‘Ming-Ch’ing Studies’ at the Academia Sinica. Over the years, Professor Hsiung has held visiting professorships at many leading academic institutions in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, including UCLA, Cornell University, University of Michigan, Freie Universitat Berlin, and Keio University, Japan.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong
President, Asian New Humanities Net (ANHN)
(852) 3943 7134

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Souleymane Bachir Diagne received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.

He is the author of Boole, l’oiseau de nuit en plein jour (Paris: Belin, 1989) (a book on Boolean algebra), Islam and the Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal (Dakar, Codesria, 2011), African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude (Seagull Books, 2011), The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa (Dakar, Codesria, 2016), Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with Western Tradition (New York, Columbia University Press, 2018).

His book, Bergson postcolonial: L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 2011) is forthcoming in an English version to be published by Fordham University Press. That book was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011 and on that same year professor, Diagne received the Edouard Glissant Prize for his work.

Professor Diagne’s current teaching interests include history of early modern philosophy, philosophy, and Sufism in the Islamic world, African philosophy and literature, twentieth-century French philosophy.

A passion for philosophy, science and society

What does it mean to be a philosopher in the modern day? Does philosophy still offer answers to todays’ most pressing issues, or does it belong to the questions of the past? What can philosophy teach us that we don’t already know?

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Senegalese modern-day philosopher that is here to answer these questions and more. With an extensive academic career that encompasses African literature, History of Philosophy and Francophone Studies across three continents, Souleyman offers a unique point of view on the history of Philosophy in today’s beliefs, actions and ideas, its influence across different cultures, and the decolonization of philosophical concepts.

A strong supporter of doing good in your own sphere before taking on the world, Souleymane believes that human progress goes beyond individual convictions, instead residing in the common forces that move us towards the greater, brighter goal of a shared human experience that pays no mind to religious, national or ethnic fragmentations.
Watch our interview to better understand today’s relationship between philosophy and religion, the importance of both in creating a better world for younger people, and how the ideas of the past have been revolutionized to provide a clearer reflection of today’s philosophical and spiritual needs.

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Souleymane: My name is Souleymane. Souleymane Bachir Diagne. I’m a Senegalese philosopher. I’ve taught twenty years in Senegal, after finishing my higher education in France, and in 2002, I crossed the Atlantic again and went to the United States, where I taught Philosophy, first at Northwestern University in the suburbs of Chicago, and then now, I live in New York, where I teach Philosophy and Francophone studies at Columbia University.

Nerina: Thank you for your time and great to speak with you. How did you get into philosophy?

Souleymane: That’s a really good question, because there is some chance, always, in the choices we make. When I finished high school and when I first traveled out of Dakar, in my country Senegal, and went to France to study, I was hesitating between two different paths; one of them would have made me an engineer by now, because I was admitted in a school of Engineering named INSA – Intitut National des Sciences Apliquées -, which was in Lyon, and I also was admitted to go to what is known in the French system as classe préparatoire, these elite paths where students prepare for entrance into école normale supérieure, the system of Grandes Écoles, as it is known in France. The first choice would have meant becoming an engineer, the second choice would have meant becoming a philosopher, and I decided for Philosophy after a while. It took me a while to make that decision, and now I’m very happy I made that decision; that was really what my life was about, being passionate, having feeling this passion for Philosophy, reading texts that I loved, explaining them and writing somehow from them in doing research in the field I had chosen.

Nerina: You had to choose between two completely different paths. What is the relationship between science and philosophy, in your opinion?

Souleymane: What I do is, in fact, not separate them, so the reason why I do not ask myself what is the difference between the two is that I do not separate them in the first place.

Let me give you an example, a precise example of my own work. As I said, I started working in the field of logic, history of logic and mathematical logic, and the author I worked on, George Boole, the British logician and mathematician, who actually invented our binary system, the 0 and 1 that we use in the language of our computers, was an invention of Boole. Something that people do not know is that his project was philosophical in the first place; he wanted to make Aristotelian logic more efficient by using the language of Algebra, and in so doing, he created the scientific object that would be called the Algebra of Boole and that we are using in our computers. So this interpenetration, I would call it, this interaction between science and philosophy is very important, so this is why I believe that the Humanities and the so called ‘Exact Sciences’ should never be separated. After all, it is one human mind which needs, at once, scientific procedures and artistic and humanistic values, and these should be together.

Nerina: What does it mean, being a philosopher in the 21st century?

Souleymane: It’s complicated, what does it mean to be a philosopher? Well, let me answer that question by letting you know what my experience was, and I said I was always between science and philosophy, mathematics and philosophy. The way in which I reconcile those two passions that I had, was when I finished, when I was going to choose a topic for my dissertation in Philosophy to work in the field of Algebra, of Logic, so I wrote a dissertation and my first two books, the first two books that I published, were both in the field of algebra, of logic, so that’s one way of answering your question, to be a philosopher may mean to be a philosopher of science, a historian of science, which was what a did.

And then I went back home, I went back to Senegal, and of course I was going to teach philosophy. My goal, going back home, was to create in the Department of Philosophy in Dakar, a strong curriculum in History, Philosophy of Science, Sociology of Science, because that was my fundamental training, and I did that, I created that curriculum back home. But then, at the same time, you had all the debates going on, and that is what it means to be a philosopher; you cannot be a philosopher in the same way you are a natural scientist or a physicist, etc, etc; which means that you pay attention to what is going on. Your thinking is also one way of intervening; you intervene in the public square, in some respects, or at least something of the debates going on around you find an echo in your thinking. So I could not just decide that ‘Ok, I’m a specialist in philosophy of science, this is what I’m going to do’. I had to be part of the debates that were taking place at that time.
And so one aspect was the question of philosophy in Africa, what does it mean to philosophize in the African continent, to philosophize (indiscernible, 7:02) the problems in Africa. To give you an example, what does it mean to look at African art in its difference from European art, for example. So, those were the debates going on, and I started taking part. The 90’s had been years of transition towards democracy, and so the thinking was about African democracies, what does it mean to make these countries democratic, what kind of institutions were to be designed, so this was a very exciting time for someone to think philosophically about the problems facing Africa.

Another aspect was also the question of religion. I went back home in the early 1980’s, and this was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and political Islam as we know it now was very much on the scene, was very much on our screens and our newspapers and so and so forth, and Senegal is a Muslim country, so that was an aspect of the debate as well, what connection should we have now, where’s the intellectual and spiritual tradition of Islam, which is not known and of which philosophy is an important part. So I decided, also, in addition to my more technical teaching in philosophy of mathematics, to teach the history of philosophy in the Islam world, and to intervene in some respect on the debate surrounding Islam today. So, this is a very long answer, but that is for me what it means to be a philosopher. Again, not just chose a path, a specialty and work in that specialty narrowly defined, but being ready to go different ways, to change and to adapt, also, to the discussion about what is going on around you.

Nerina: Religion and philosophy. They are considered by many people be opposite ways to see life. How do you see it? Is there a contradiction?

Souleymane: Well, sure, one could say, defining things in these broad brushes, that on the one hand religion is really about faith, and even blind faith; you have to believe in something, you have to believe without evidence, you have to believe in things that you cannot see, that you cannot touch, that are not for your sensible grasping or even for your human understanding, on the one hand. And then you have philosophy, which is based on reason, rationalism, and proof and evidence. So it would be simple to just oppose the two and say that religion is one thing and philosophy is a very different thing, but now if you look at the history of religions themselves, you can see how, from within religion, there is a need to philosophize; that was the birth of Islamic philosophy, for example.

You cannot just decide that everything has been said once and for all by a revealed text; even the text you have to read it. So you can never be in the situation where you say ‘This ends philosophical questioning and I have the answers now’; you have to build your answers, you have to keep them open, you have to understand how open they are and how open they remain, because it is really, truly, your own human duty to examine. One important Muslim philosopher (indiscernible name, 11:28) has said ‘He who does not doubt, does not examine, and he who does not examine, doesn’t believe’, and this is probably the best single sentence to explain why philosophy is necessary to religion itself and how the connection between the two is really an internal relationship and not an external relationship between two very different things.

Nerina: You mentioned that, as a philosopher, you have to take part in the discussions that take place in the public sphere. Right now, it is religion in focus, and not always in a positive way. How do your books participate in the general discussion?

Souleymane: We live in times where, paradoxically, religion is so present in our lives. I mean, if we open our television sets, we see religion everywhere, and many terrible, violent, unbelievable things being done in the name of religion, and at the same time, we are so ignorant about religions in general, because years and years of so called secularism has made religion something that is not known anymore.
You know, even independently form the political situation that we are living in, and the security questions that religions and fanaticism, rather that religion, by the way, are posing, there’s an ignorance of religion. I mean, younger people are even incapable of reading works of art because they just don’t know who the people represented in art are, and most of the time these are religious characters, biblical characters that you find in paintings and so and so forth. But what it means, also, in particular for Islam, which is probably the religion nowadays associated with violence and everything. It is a terrible thing, and people need to be reminded that this religion was not born yesterday, and it is the religion of one billion and a half people, and it is a spiritual and an intellectual tradition.
So there is a need to make that tradition known, primarily for younger Muslims, for Muslims themselves, and this is what led me to the decision to teach also the tradition of philosophy in Islam, and this is the decision that led me from there to use my teaching for many years and make it a book, and I believe that that book, by precisely reminding people of what this intellectual and spiritual tradition that we call Islam, that we should be knowing as Islam is, this becomes de facto, a kind of intervention in the public square to, again, make Islam known and, primarily, known to Muslims themselves.

Nerina: And your books somehow change the narrative about the history of philosophy, right?

Souleymane: Absolutely. It is important for philosophy, for the discipline of philosophy in general, to sort of decolonize itself, as I would call it, because philosophy has been constructed as a uniquely European phenomenon, and this has happened very recently, actually. Traditionally, historically, philosophers in Greece or in Europe before the contemporary modern times never really thought of themselves as being the unique philosophers that humanity has ever seen; this is something that happened almost around the beginning of colonialism, that Europe defined itself has the heir of Greek philosophy and the continent of philosophy par excellence, and decided that philosophy was really the defining feature of Europe, so African philosophy could not exist; philosophy could not exist anywhere else outside Europe.
So this changed, because the history of philosophy is just not supporting such an idea if you look at who is the heir of Greeks. Many people have been the heir of the Greeks; Greek philosophy was appropriated by the Islamic world, so you have a tradition of philosophy in Islam that we do not know; this is something that I decided to teach, to let my own students know, because we were a department of philosophy in a Muslim country and we needed to know about that tradition as well, and I mean, human beings are naturally inclined towards philosophy, because human beings, by definition, know that they are mortal, they bury their dead, they look up to the sky, and they ask themselves about the destination of humanity, what it means to be human, what it is be born, what it means to die, and so and so forth. So philosophical thinking and philosophical wisdom exist everywhere, so we have to think about that and reconstruct the history of philosophy in such a way that it ceases to be this uniquely Western history of thought, and that is a very important aspect of my work as well.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that your students have to learn?

Souleymane: You know, to just give you my experience, among the class that I teach in my university, Columbia, I have one class on history of philosophy in the Islamic world, where I introduce my students to classical Islamic philosophy, form 9th century to 13th century, and then also modern questions and so on. I also teach a class that I call African Literature in Philosophy, where I look at what is being written in Africa and what are the problems being debated by African intellectuals and philosophers, and I also teach, of course, general history of philosophy and philosophy of logic, as I’ve always done. And when my students have the feeling that they are more of what Islam is, or that they are more aware of Africa in terms of the intellectual production of the continent – Africa not just being a subject of conversation associated with diseases, problems, epidemics and so on so forth, but what are Africans thinking and writing now, what have they been thinking and also writing – it is not known that, for example, you have a long tradition of written edition in Africa; Africa is generally associated with orality, and people are now discovering all the manuscripts in Timbuktu, for example, that this is not true. And when they become aware of that, when they change their mind about what they thought, or what they thought they knew about the topics that I’m teaching, I think that I have done my job as an educator.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Souleymane: Well, I dream of a society that would not be fragmented into what I call ethno-nationalisms, which is unfortunately what we have today. It is not just that there is a kind of stiffening of identities where people are fighting in the name of their religious identities or their national identities and so and so forth. It’s not just religion, but even in the field of politics we can see that. What I call ethno-nationalism is, as well, all these movements, extreme right movements, that we are calling populism. We should call them tribalism, because that is what it is, and my dream is the reconstruction of the philosophical and ethical idea of one humanity, which means hospitality.
Let’s look at the crisis of migrants that we have nowadays, refugees and migrants. They are met with what the Pope has called the globalization of indifference. The Pope is appalled and is always reacting against what he sees as indifference to human suffering, because we are so fragmented and thinking about ourselves and people who look like us, have the same religion, have the same skin color, and so and so forth. We are losing sight of the ethical general idea of humanity, in general. And that is the foundation for common life, that is the foundation for building together our Earth, that is the foundation of having the sense that we are one, our Earth is one, and the we should come together and take care of it.
This was, for example, something we saw during the Paris agreement on our environment. This was a wonderful metaphor for the idea of humanity being one, and looking in the same direction and taking care of our common home, which is our Earth. Unfortunately, we have seen the forces of fragmentation come again, when the United States, for example, just decided that they are going to, you know, come out of this common agreement and so and so forth. So that is, somehow, what I think is important, and will be the ultimate goal of all the different aspects of my work, working really to what’s, you know, this general idea, this universal idea of one humanity.

Nerina: How can we reconstruct our notion of humanity?

Souleymane: This is long-term thinking. In the short term, it has to be played on the political ground; we have to resist this type of populism. I believe that we have to fight for that ideal of a world of social justice, where you do not just have a global capitalism indifferent to human suffering and to that kind of fragmentation that I have described.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Souleymane: Well, I’ve had for a long time the dream of, you know, all young people have that dream, of changing the world, and I was thinking of doing science, I was thinking of having the discovery that would change things on Earth and things like that. Growing up, you learn to be much more humble than that, and you just ask yourself ‘Ok, am I, right now, touching the lives of people and changing things in my own sphere of influence?’, because, if you are in my position, obviously you have some influence on certain number of people. So my dream is to be able at one point to ask myself honestly that question and be able to answer that yes, I did that, and I realized that wish of making difference in the lives of a certain number of younger people.

Nerina: What is life about?

Souleymane: For me, life is about love; in other words, the force of life. I believe in the force of life. If I have to define myself in terms of my philosophy, I would say that I am very much a vitalist, in the sense that I believe in the force of life, and I think that the force of life is the same as the force of love. That this world has been created out of love as an open ended, always emerging cosmology; that this world is something that human beings have to invent an reinvent all the time, and that the energy they use, the force they use for that, which is the force of life, is the same as the force of love. So, for me, that is the sort of cosmic significance of love, it is also the personal significance of love. It is because the world itself is a creation of love, and that its movement forward is the movement of love, that our individual lives are always about love.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation, and thank you for watching, thank you for listening and thank you for sharing. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any suggestion. Keep wondering, and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.


Souleymane Bachir Diagne received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.

He is the author of Boole, l’oiseau de nuit en plein jour (Paris: Belin, 1989) (a book on Boolean algebra), Islam and the Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal (Dakar, Codesria, 2011), African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude (Seagull Books, 2011), The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa (Dakar, Codesria, 2016), Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with Western Tradition (New York, Columbia University Press, 2018).

His book, Bergson postcolonial: L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 2011) is forthcoming in an English version to be published by Fordham University Press. That book was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011 and on that same year professor, Diagne received the Edouard Glissant Prize for his work.

Professor Diagne’s current teaching interests include history of early modern philosophy, philosophy, and Sufism in the Islamic world, African philosophy and literature, twentieth-century French philosophy.

Michel DeGraff

Michel DeGraff
Professor of Linguistics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. Fields of scholarship: inguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights and development.

The language we speak. Education, innovation and the future of Haiti

How does language use and suppression mirror societal power? What impact has colonialism had on the Haitian Creole language and its role in Haiti’s development? And how can linguists succeed in promoting the use of Creole languages, and elevating their prestige in the eyes of native speakers and their governments?

Michel DeGraff, a Haitian linguist and tenured professor at MIT, is interested in these questions and more, using his work to try and understand how languages like Haitian Creole come into being, and how new varieties emerge due to the contact of diverse populations throughout history.
Through his studies, and his own life growing up in Haiti and being forced to use French during his education, Michel believes that educating young people in their home language is essential for their freedom, well-being, and development.

In this video, he tells us why he set up the MIT-Haiti Initiative after the country’s devastating earthquake and discusses the challenges and successes in his research and teaching about the development and structure of Haitian Creole and other Creole languages, and his bringing Haitian Creole, alongside modern pedagogy and educational technology, into Haiti’s school system.

Michel DeGraff is a professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. He is also a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. His fields of scholarship are linguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights, and development.

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Michel: Hello, my name is Michel DeGraff. I was born in Haiti. I’m a professor of linguistics at MIT, which is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And I’m also the founder and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

Nerina: Thank you for joining me, Michel. What are your main research interests?

Michel: My main research topic in linguistics has been to try to understand the way that new languages come into being, and how new varieties of languages also emerge. My focus is on the interaction between the contact of populations and the creation of new varieties of language. In a way, my laboratory case is my own native language, Haitian Creole, which emerged in the Caribbean, in Haiti, back in the 17-18th century, out of the contact between varieties of French and various West-African and other African languages. And out this contact, this new variety emerged, which we now call Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl in Haiti.

I also work on the relationship between linguistics and education, especially in the context of my native country, Haiti. I think what we’re doing there can also be used as a model for other countries that speak a local language that, because of historical reasons, has been stigmatised, and excluded from the schools, courts and government, and other domains where knowledge and power are created and transmitted. So, I’m hoping that the work we are doing in linguistics can have a positive impact on education and development in countries like Haiti, but also other countries in the Global South.

Nerina: What makes your first language, Kreyòl, so unique in your opinion?

Michel: From my perspective, what makes Haitian Creole and other Creole languages special is the fact that both their own history and development and the way they have been studied by scholars reflect colonial history. At the same time, because of their very origins in situations of really drastic power inequality, I mean slavery, colonization. now those languages offer a path out of domination and stigmatization, a path into liberation. For me, that is what makes these languages very special: the fact that they come out of a history of colonial struggles. In a way, there are still the theater of struggles. But if you better understand how they emerged, how they are created, but also if you understand their capacity for education, literature and liberation, then they can be used for development in a way that hasn’t happened yet in the case of many Caribbean communities but also other communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, where you have either Creole languages or what we think of as “indigenous” or “local” languages being spoken.

Nerina: The point is that French is the official language of Haiti, but Kreyòl in Haiti is not the language of a minority but it is the language of a majority, right?

Michel: Absolutely. What you’ve just said, Nerina, is absolutely right. In Haiti, Kreyòl is the language… I wouldn’t even say of the majority… but I’d say it’s the language of the totality. In Haiti, everyone speaks Kreyòl. In fact, you can hardly function there in French, except if you were to stay at a hotel or in the capital or in fancy neighbourhoods. Once you go out in the outside country, on the streets, into the busy vibrant neighbourhoods where people are living their lives, you have to use Kreyòl. So, everyone speaks it, even those who are forbidden to speak it! I remember very well when I was in school, I went to a school run by French Catholic brothers, I was forbidden to speak Kreyòl, but yet I learnt it, I speak it. In fact, it’s my soul language, my first language. Although my own parents were very concerned that I should speak French first, but in fact, Kreyòl is my native first language. And it’s the first language for most Haitians.

Nerina: How does this situation that you are not allowed to speak in your native language and that somehow your native language may be seen as not important or not even a real language, how does this affect you?

Michel: I often ask this very question, how does this stigmatization and oppression of a native language, how does it act on a child? I’ve done research on that. So I have many videos of children in classrooms and how their languages are being suppressed. Often when they are being taught to speak French, and if they have a Kreyòl accent or they pronounce the vowels in a Kreyòl way, the teachers look down on them and make fun of them. Then those children come to believe that what they speak at home, what their family speaks is a broken language, is broken French.

So, what it does to them, I think, is to make them believe that they are broken people. It makes them believe that they are inferior, that for them to be fully human they have to speak French. To me, the effect of that entire system, of what I would say is MIS-education, is undermining the entire foundations of our nation. In the school, the children are being taught from day one to mimic. In fact, they learn how to read not as they learn how to think. They learn to parrot, to mimic, because they read sentences by sounding out words without understanding what the words mean.

So, what it does to them? It teaches them that you go to school not to learn, but to become a parrot, to pronounce or mimic French words without understanding them. So, it becomes normal for them that learning means parroting French text without understanding it. I can imagine what in the long term it does to the nation because you have cohorts upon cohorts of children who come out of school without really knowing how to read a text, without any capacity for critical thinking. Even teachers teach by repeating without questioning what they repeat.

Nerina: What is the relationship between language and power?

Michel: Well, I think of the situation of a country where everyone speaks Kreyòl and a small group speaks French and yet French is the language used for power. I think it’s a good example of what psychologists and philosophers and sociologists have studied as the power of ideology, the power of prejudices to even affect those who are being oppressed. What you find is that it has been so long, since the 17th-18th century, that French has been presented as the real language, the superior language. Then, linguists and creolists have also played a role in that, in ranking Creole languages as if they were the world’s simplest languages, as if they were languages that were below in terms of capacity of expression, below languages like French for example.

So, what you find is that even those who speak only Kreyòl are also convinced that in order for them to achieve citizenship, to be real and fully human, they have to speak French. So, Steven Biko said something that is very important: he said that the most powerful tool of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. The idea here is something that Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Frantz Fanon understood very well: that hegemony works because those people who are being excluded, those people who are being oppressed, they’ve been convinced to believe in their own inferiority, in the validity of why they’re oppressed.

And that’s why the situation in Haiti still holds, because you have parents who are so poor they give all this money to schools, and they don’t care whether the school teaches the kids math or science or literature, all they care about is whether the kids learn French, as if French is the key to knowledge and to humanity. But, no, it’s not. No language can have that kind of function, right? The best tool to develop your humanity and your knowledge is your native language, and with that, you can also learn other languages. So, that’s why I think it’s really important for teachers, scholars, leaders, linguists and anthropologists to really look at this issue very closely—also psychiatrists—to deeply understand how to correct it, because until it’s corrected, you’re going to have a nation that’s totally upside down. As my colleague Yves Dejean says, we have a country that’s upside down because the schools are upside down.

Nerina: Haiti is a beautiful country, has a long history even pre-Columbus, and after the years of the colonization it was a proud moment when Haiti became independent before other countries did at the beginning of the 19th Century. But what do you think or feel went wrong, why does Haiti still struggle?

Michel: I think that Haiti, as you said, is a beautiful country with an amazing history. It was one of the first lands to welcome Columbus when he got lost. Of course, he didn’t discover Haiti. He just got lost there. That’s why he called it the “West Indies.” And the Amerindians welcomed him to their own detriment because very quickly they were decimated. It was the first genocide in the Americas.

We’ve had this glorious history whereby the Europeans brought in the Africans as enslaved labourers, then these Africans managed to outwit the Europeans: they won an amazing independence war, back in the beginning of the 19th century. There’s something that our founding fathers understood. Jean-Jacques Dessalines who was our first president understood that we may have won the war of independence in terms of getting rid of the French, but if we don’t also become independent culturally, intellectually, linguistically, then we won’t really be independent.

He also understood that there was this danger of neocolonialism. So although the French had been expelled, there were descendants of the French in Haiti, there were also free blacks who for selfish interest wanted to just replace the French and not share the wealth with their compatriots, but create a new class of colonizers that could then oppress their own compatriots.

This is what we’ve seen. We’ve seen that in Haiti from the very beginning there was this small class of free blacks, the blacks who were free even during the colony, but also the mulattoes (descendants of French who mated with African women), and they replaced the colonizers, the French colonizers. One thing that they did that was actually quite clever was to enlist the school system as a way to preserve power, because very early on, although there were attempts at the very beginning to say ‘well, we need to use Kreyòl for the school system because given that we are a population that speaks mostly Kreyòl that’s what should be used’, but those proposals from the very beginning were excluded. So, what happened is that the school system very early on was based on French which means that only those who could speak French, and that was already a very small minority, would have access to success.

So, it’s basically a privilege given to the elite that became cemented, and became so entrenched in the society. That’s what we’ve been living with since then. So that’s the tragedy of Haiti, that’s the problem. But now with all that we know about language and education, I think that we can do another revolution, which is to convince the leaders and the population that our native language, our national language, is essential for our freedom.

Nerina: You wanted to use your knowledge to change the situation, right?

Michel: Absolutely. I really believe in something that Karl Marx said, that what is important is not only to understand the world, but it’s also to be able to change it. In linguistics, and in all the humanities—anthropology, history, psychology…—we have all this knowledge about the way the mind and society work. But what good does it do if we have all this knowledge, but we cannot make the kind of changes that will make the world better, and the lives of people better? What good does it do if we build all this knowledge about Creole languages, but at the same time Kreyòl speakers cannot benefit from this knowledge? Sometimes it’s even worse, Kreyòl speakers sometimes suffer because of the kind of statements and theories that linguists have been producing for centuries about Creole languages, classifying them as if they were the world’s simplest languages. This is the very reason why certain scholars and educators prefer to use French instead of Kreyòl, because why use a language that’s ‘simplest’ when you can use a more ‘sophisticated’ language, meaning French. You see…

So this is one area where the knowledge being produced by linguists is actually undermining the livelihood and the future of the very speakers of these languages that we study. At least, we have to understand the impact of these kinds of ‘knowledge’ and question the basis for them. Because if we have any doubt whether our knowledge is solid, then we should really think of what are we doing in the real world with this knowledge? How can we make it better?

Nerina: You are the founder and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. When and how did it start?

Michel: I like to think of it as having its roots from my childhood because as a child I was never allowed to use my native language in the school system as a means of knowledge. I was prevented from using it. When I was a computer scientist, my first job as a professional computer scientist was to write programmes for linguists who were trying to help computers to understand language, to have computers able to read, say, the New York Times and be able to pronounce text for people who cannot read, for example. As I was doing this work, I couldn’t help but think about my own language, Kreyòl, and I realised that if I were to write the same programme for Kreyòl it would also work maybe even better because in Haitian Creole we have a very transparent and logical spelling system which is a lot better than what you have both for English and French. It’s a very logical, transparent spelling where every sound is always written with the same letter. It’s very rigorous and logical, which would make it much easier for a programme to be able to read Haitian Creole as compared to French or English.

From that moment onwards, I was always thinking about the use or misuse of Haitian Creole, our national language, in the school system in Haiti.

Now, to make a long story short, in my work as a linguist I always kept in touch with colleagues in Haiti. The one colleague that really influenced me a lot, his name is Professor Yves Dejean, who used to run this state office to promote Kreyòl in the 90s. So, Yves Dejean invited in the mid-90s to do a seminar at the Kreyòl Language Bureau in Haiti, and there I met other linguists who, like me and Yves Dejean, understood the importance of promoting Kreyòl as the main language of education. So, we did some work together, training young linguists to understand the structure of Haitian Creole and to also realise that it has the full complex structure that makes it capable of expressing science, mathematics, philosophy… so there is no reason to exclude it from the school system.

So, when the earthquake happened in 2010, I was on this phone call with Yves Dejean, and all of a sudden, we got cut off! Ten minutes after, I realised that there was this major earthquake in Haiti. So, of course, I was very worried! Thank God, he was safe, his house was safe.

But then in the aftermath of the earthquake, me and my colleagues at MIT were discussing the best way that we could help. We realized that the best way was not to send money or bottles of water. The best way to help was to try and change the school system from the inside. In fact, Yves Dejean wrote a manifesto soon after the earthquake, where he says that the best way to rebuild Haiti is not with cement or with infrastructure, but it’s to rebuild Haiti from within, from the soul, to change the attitudes of the leaders of the society towards their own native culture, and their own native language. If we can do that, then we can really rebuild a Haiti that will be better for all.

So that moment after the earthquake and talking to Yves Dejean, I realised that what I could do at MIT is to try and create a team of colleagues, because at MIT we have very good scientists, educators, mathematicians, and engineers. Then we could see how we could bring some of our know-how and share it with Haiti, at the same time also expand our own humanity and expertise at MIT. So, it would be a two-way relationship where MIT would be sharing with Haiti, but at the same time, Haiti, with its own rich history and expertise and human capital, could share with us. So basically, both MIT and Haiti would expand and become better in the process. It would be an opportunity for both MIT and Haiti to try to create a new kind of university that might become a model, not just for Haiti, but for the entire world.

Nerina: What are the main pillars of this programme?

Michel: Our goal in the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to try to share with Haiti the best know-how at MIT when it comes to teaching and learning, because MIT is one of the best universities in the world. I think we’ve become very good at developing methods and tools and resources for students to learn in a very creative fashion. This notion of creativity is at the core of the initiative, because when I was growing up in Haiti I remember very well that, in order to succeed as a shining student, it was a matter of just memorising lessons, and being able to recite them by heart. If there is one feature that characterises the Haitian school system, it is rote learning. It starts from kindergarten and first grade, where children are being taught to read text they don’t understand. All that matters in ‘reading’ is to be able to sound out and repeat words without understanding them in any deep way. So, this is what my colleagues and I felt, from my own experience as a student, needed to be changed in order for the country to use the full capacity of its citizens who are very creative. If you look at Haitian art and at children on the farms in the rural country, those children are very creative, and yet they go to school, and their creativity is shut off and not exploited. So, the goal then was to create a school system, from kindergarten to university, where you can learn in a very creative way, you can learn in an active fashion.

The main aspect of the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to introduce methods and tools for active, creative, interactive learning. To do that, we need one indispensable condition which is that the students have to be able to use the language they are most fluent in because they cannot be creative learners if they have to use a language that they are not comfortable in. So that’s the second piece of the initiative.

The third piece is something that MIT is very good at, which is the use of software and tools that trigger and promote this kind of interaction.

So that’s basically the MIT initiative.

Nerina: What is the relationship between language and personality?

Michel: I think in Haiti the relationship between language and personality is such a clear one. For example, if you go to Haiti, you will be pressed to find a typical Haitian giving any joke in French. If you are in a courtyard or on the playground, all the jokes and stories and songs happen in Kreyòl. And those in that context who switch to French, they switch to French to be formal. When you go and court a girl, in order to impress her, you have to speak French, so she thinks that you are smart and well educated and of a good social class. But then once you get comfortable with the girl, you would switch back to Kreyòl. Once I was on the phone talking to my girlfriend, I was maybe 11 or 12, and we were talking in Kreyòl, and the mom heard us speak Kreyòl, got offended, and picked up the phone and said ‘Sir, please speak French to my daughter! You are disrespecting her by speaking Kreyòl’. I could speak French, but I was so frozen by this command that I had to hang up the phone. This shows you how, in Haiti, that link between language and personality is so clear because you cannot be yourself in French. For most Haitians, to be true to yourself is to speak Kreyòl.

Nerina: What motivates you, Michel?

Michel: I think it’s my own history in many ways. But also when I go to Haiti and I see those children and speak to them, I can feel and hear their intelligence and creativity and desire to succeed and I can feel that they have the capacity to succeed. Then, to look at them in the school and they start failing, but it’s not because they are stupid. They start failing because the school system is set against them. That is what motivates me.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Michel: My dream, really, is to see the Haitian leadership own that project because, so far, the project has been pushed on the MIT side, and by a growing number of Haitian teachers and faculty at the level of high school, elementary school, and university. But, for that project to have fruit in the long term, at some point it has to be owned by the Haitian society in total—meaning the government, civil society, the parliamentary system….

So my dream is that at some point, hopefully soon in the future, there will be political leaders in parliament and in the executive , alongside the society and all the NGOs, that will realise that for the country, or any project, to succeed, there has to be models like the one we are promoting where the national language is at the core of the project, but also that it be participatory—that everyone can participate without any barrier of language or technology. Of course, I would hope that a stronger alliance between MIT-Haiti and the powers that be both in Haiti and beyond.

And eventually the bigger dream is to have this initiative become a model for other communities—in Jamaica, Curacao, Seychelles, Mauritius, Latin America, Africa, and all over. Did you know that 40% of students are still being taught in a foreign language? That’s a huge number. And also what is really crucial is that there is a direct correlation between those countries that do not use their national language and the countries that are impoverished. So, the most impoverished countries are also those that do not make use of their local languages. So, the bigger dream is that this model will be applied globally, that in each community with a local language, the school system will enlist that local language in the teaching. On paper this is what UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, USAID… that’s also what they believe in. Obviously, there is some blockage against this. But hopefully, in my big dream, those blockages will disappear.

Nerina: Is there a question that nobody ever asks you but you wish somebody would?

Michel: One question that I would like to be asked is: What would I have loved to do if I were not doing linguistics? What other profession would I have liked to have had!

Nerina: And what would you have become?

Michel: I have asked myself that question many times. And I answer it when I go to dance class! I have a dear friend who is an Afro-Haitian dance teacher, and I’m part of his company’s board as an advisor, and I often like to go to his dance performances. Whenever I see beautiful dance performances, I wish that I grew up in a country where boys could have taken dance lessons and become dancers. When I dance it makes me feel really good! So, sometimes I wonder if I would have enjoyed being a professional dancer, would I have enjoyed dancing maybe ballet or Afro-Haitian dance or the kind of dances that the Alvin Ailey dance company performs because they are so beautiful. It’s like a different language, but a beautiful language that people can speak even though they come from different backgrounds. So, in Jean Appolon’s dance classes, when you go there on Saturdays, you see people from all walks of life, of all ethnicities and sizes and ages, and all together they dance beautifully, and when in the class everybody feels so good and so happy! You see this community they built through dancing, and even though people don’t speak to each other that much. But they dance together, they have the drums going through their souls together, it creates that kind of coziness and love and bond that I rarely experience elsewhere. So that’s what I think I would have liked to become maybe, a dancer.

Nerina: My last question, what is life about?

Michel: Well, it’s like what I tell my little boy, that life is trying to make a change to make the world better. It could be very small, it could be something you do within yourself or in your family or neighbourhood. But in your life, if you can make that small change that will make someone’s life better, then it makes life worth living. Life is also about love: without love, life wouldn’t be worth living. That’s what I think life is about: to make some change that will make someone’s life better, and to fall in love and enjoy love and love other people and be loved by other people. That makes life worth it!

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Michel: Thank you Nerina, that was a nice interview!

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening, thank you for sharing. If you have any suggestions please feel free to reach out to me. See you soon, and keep wondering. Bye, ciao.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. Fields of scholarship: inguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights and development.

Simone Beta

Simone Beta
Professor of Classical Philology

Università degli studi di Siena, Italy

Do you know where the word 'politics' comes from?

How were ancient Greek and Latin texts disseminated throughout history? Why should we care? And what can these texts tell us about the formulation of our modern societies, and how we should respond to current political events?

These are some of the questions that preoccupy Classical Philologist Simone Beta, a lecturer at the University of Sienna, Italy, who’s recent autobiographical retelling of the life of the Palatine Anthology, gives an insight into the histories of the Western world.

In the book’s retelling, Simone shows us how the ancient text has travelled across Europe, and the ways in which it still influences modern literature and societies to this day. In this video, Simone tells us how, in the 15th and 16th centuries, people all over Europe began to read and study Latin and Greek texts, and the story of Greece and Rome became a topic of discussion among the intellectuals of Europe.

Watch our interview to discover the tale of how modern Europe started from these discoveries, and see the ways in which our social, political, and cultural systems are founded on these ancient texts.

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Read the transcript of Simone Beta's Video here

Simone: My name is Simone Beta. I teach Classical Philology at the University of Siena, Italy.

Nerina: What is Classical Philology Simone?

Simone: Classical Philology is the study of Greek and Latin literature and the study of the way their texts have come down to us since antiquity to modern times.

Nerina: How do we know what we know about Greek and Latin literature?

Simone: They had books. They made books out of papyrus which was a plant that grew in Egypt and they wrote on these. Some parts of these papyrus books had been saved by mere chance but the biggest part of Greek and Latin literature was saved because these works were copied all over the centuries by monks in the abbeys of Europe these regards Latin books and by monks in Athens or Constantinople that became the capital of the Eastern Empire and they have been copied, copied and copied. And then when these texts were discovered by the humanist in the 14th -15th century they were then published because in those years Gutenberg invented the printer. So when they began to print they were saved forever. So from that moment on there was no chance that these texts could be missed or lost.

Nerina: You have just published a book about a Greek manuscript with the title Io, Un Manoscritto, Me a manuscript, right?

Simone: I decided to write the story of this book because as many of the ancient manuscripts this book had a very interesting history. It was written in Greece of course in Constantinople around the 10th century A.D. and it’s called the Palatine Anthology the collection of the equivalent of small poems. It was brought to Italy in the years that preceded the fall of Constantinople and the attack Ottoman, the Turks and then from Italy it started to make a long trip all around Europe because it was owned by Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was one of the most important intellectuals of Europe and then probably he gave it as a present to Thomas More. Thomas More was the secretary of Harry the VIII and then after his death it became a possession of John Clement who was a very famous physician.

And then since this Clement was Catholic and England had become Anglican he went away from England and went to Belgium where the Catholic religion was more important. Then in the beginning of the 17th Century it found its home in the library of Heidelberg in Germany. But Heidelberg was a protestant town and when the town was conquered by the Catholics during the 30 years’ war the book was given as present from Maximilian of Bavaria it was given to the Pope. So book went from Heidelberg to Rome.

Then when Napoleon defeated the army of the Pope at the end of the 18th Century like many objects of art also this manuscript went to Paris. When Napoleon fell the books were given back not to the Pope but in this case their possessor Heidelberg. But since in all these travels the book had split up into parts the French gave back only one part of it and one part remained in Paris. So now the book is half in Germany and half in Paris.

During all these centuries its poems have been copied, published, made known, generated other poems. So I thought that the story of this book is important to explain how literature went over Europe and how it also influenced modern literature because among these epigrams there were epigrams, comic epigrams or there are love erotic epigrams and all of these small poems have generated other imitators all over the century.

Nerina: It sounds like an interesting cultural trip. Could you tell me more about this?

Simone: When humanism and then Renaissance began as I told you in the 15th and 16th century people all over Europe began to read and study Latin and Greek texts. Latin text had been studied all over the middle ages because Latin was a language that was not lost. Greek was lost in Europe but saved in Greece because that was the place where it was spoken.

When in the Renaissance these texts became popular they were printed and so they began to be sold and read. The story of Greece and being mostly the story of Rome became a topic of discussion among the intellectuals of Europe and the story of modern Europe started from this discovery basically. When they began to read again these texts and to build social, political and cultural system founded on that literature and that particular culture.

Nerina: Why is such a book so valuable?

Simone: The importance of such a manuscript was the fact that it contains some compositions that cannot be found anywhere else. So in a way this book contains some unique poems, some unique texts.

Nerina: How did you find out what happened to the book over the centuries?

Simone: Many people before me have studied the stories of these manuscripts. It’s like a treasure hunt. You must put together some different clues and discover that they’re connected. There are many people who have done a lot of work – scholarly work on this book. I chose to do something different because my book is an autobiography. It’s the book itself that tells its own story and describes all these travels all around Europe.

Nerina: Why did you choose this kind of approach?

Simone: Some colleagues said that I am good scholar but I like to write things that are not very scholarly. That’s what they said but I prefer to write something that is interesting. So I prefer to choose my topics, the topics I like and topics that I think can appeal to people of the 21st century AD.

Nerina: Besides of course the joy of writing interesting comedies, tragedies, and stories why is it important to study Greek and Latin literature?

Simone: It can help us to understand what we are and what we have become. Because for instance when you speak of political systems we use words, terminology that comes from the words and the terminology invented by the Greeks and the Romans. Basically all the terminology of politics comes from Greek or Latin. The word itself politics comes from Greek because ‘politics’ means belonging to the ‘polis’ and ‘polis’ means town and in the case of Greece its town state because as you probably know Greece has never been a nation or a state like it is now. It was made of different small towns, every town independent from the others. So politics means what regards the state basically.

Republic is a Latin word which means respublica; the things that belong to everybody. So it’s something that can explain why the study of Greek and Roman is very important because the political system which is most used in the world this republic comes from a Latin word and from a system democracy that was invented by the Greek. In fact democracy is not a Latin word but it’s a word taken from Greek and it means the power of the people.

Nerina: Could you tell me a little bit how the Greek literature developed and the relation to the Latin literature? A little bit of numbers so that we can have an idea what we are speaking about.

Simone: The oldest author in Greek literature is Homer; the poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. These poems have been composed orally about 1000BC and then starting from 7th and 6th Century BC these texts have been written down and Greek literature was born in those years. Historians, tragedians, comic poets and philosophers and all these literature became very important in the 5th and 4th Century BC.

Then when the Romans got in touch with the Greece that is since the 4th and 3rd Century BC they in one way became the heirs of the Greeks. So they developed their own literature based on Greek literature and of course this authors were the authors studied in Europe since the 4th Century BC until the 6th Century AD when the Roman empire collapsed but still the language was Latin and it remained Latin until the end of the middle ages when the Neo-Latin languages were born: Italian, French and Spanish and Europe was united also by these kind of culture and language. So what we have become now men and women of the 21st Century depend on what the Greeks and Romans wrote, taught and their culture. So that’s why I think it’s important that we still study this literature or at least that we do not ignore what they did many, many years ago.

Nerina: But who became an author?

Simone: There were not real public schools and people had to learn how to read, to write and to basically to talk by attending private schools. But there was in Athens in the 5th and 4th Century BC and then in Rome an elite that was able to write and to read. For instance some literature was enjoyed by everybody. In Athens in the 5th Century everybody, all the citizens went to the theater to watch tragedies and comedies and they received the ticket for entering the theatre by the state because it was considered something important for their own education and culture. So this is one way when we have a writer, a comic poet or a tragic poet who writes tragedy or comedy and of course this is someone who is skilled and is able to write such things. But everybody went to the theatre and watched these shows because it was part of their education, was part of public life and also part of their religion because this performances were performed during religious festivals in the town.

Nerina: But the Greek literature is a “men” literature…

Simone: This is true and actually it’s true that most of the authors are men. There are some exceptions though Sappho is surely one of these exceptions and Sappho is also a poet who ability was also recognized by man. Plato said that Sappho was the 10th Muse. So among the nine muses there was also Sappho but it is true that Greece and Rome were societies where the position of a woman was not very strong, it is true. There are some exceptions but very few.

Nerina: Who is your favorite author?

Simone: My favorite author is Aristophanes, so Greek comedy.

Nerina: And your favorite piece?

Simone: Lysistrata. Aristophanes, Lysistrata.

Nerina: What is the story and why?

Simone: The story is quite famous. The women of Athens are fed up with the fact that their husbands and their lovers are always away fighting in the war. So they say that they will not make love any more if they don’t make peace with Sparta and at the end men agree.

The meaning of this comedy is very clear that war is the worst thing ever for human beings. If there is war there is no life, love is life and so that’s what is clearly told by this story. It is told in a funny way and unfortunately it was not able to influence the Athenians because the comedy was performed in 411 BC and the war ended badly for Athens in 404 BC so seven years after but the story was very simple.

I have studied not only the comedy itself but also the many modern versions that had been made of this comedy since the 16th century. It has been quite funny because the Greek comedy ended well for the women while the modern versions end badly for the women and it’s quite strange the fact that in a society that was so clearly pro-male and anti-woman like Greece there might be a comedy where the main character is a woman and at the end she wins. While in the history of modern Europe it doesn’t happens so.

Nerina: How do you see it and why?

Simone: Because these versions were written by men who were not as smart as Aristophanes.

Nerina: An old comedy with a still relevant topic.

Simone: Yes. In fact during the cold war it became the most popular comedy of Aristophanes and it was performed everywhere and also in 2003 when the second Gulf war started there was the Lysistrata Project that is performances of the whole comedy or parts of it all over the world. I think it was the 17th of March of 2003. So this comedy of Aristophanes was chosen all over the world as a manifesto against war. So this also explains why classic literature is not dead but it’s alive, it can say something interesting even in our times.

Nerina: Why do you believe that knowing the past can improve the present?

Simone: Because we know what has happened before us otherwise it’s like starting again you know. If you ignore what has happened before it’s like starting from the Stone Age. Most of the problems that we are discussing now have been discussed by the Greeks and Romans before us. Just let me use an example which of course is very important right now.

Now Europe finds itself in a very difficult situation because of all these people that are trying to enter Europe coming from Africa or from Asia because of war, because of poverty. They try to arrive in Europe. This problem has also been present in the story of Rome for instance. It happened in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century A.D. when the barbarians were pressing on the border. So what did the Roman do? At the beginning of the 3rd Century AD, Caracalla the Emperor gave the citizenship to all the people who lived inside the boundaries of the empire. So everybody became members of the Roman Empire without any kind of discrimination, these people came to the Empire and they became citizens. So that’s one answer and so we found ourselves in a situation which is very similar and knowing what they did before us might be important.

Nerina: But Rome went also down. It was the end. Was this a good solution for the empire?

Simone: Well they could survived another 200 years. Can we say the same for Europe?

Nerina: I’m not sure Simone it’s really a good question.

Thank you so much for watching, thank you so much for sharing and thank you so much Simone for this conversation.

Simone: You’re welcome.

Nerina: Thank you.


Università degli studi di Siena, Italy

Marie Elisabeth Müller

Marie Elisabeth Müller
Professor of Innovative Content Strategies

at Stuttgart Media University in Stuttgart, Germany. Journalist, speaker, writer and mobile and multiplatform communication expert.

“Now Age Storytelling equips journalists and storytellers best for the fragmented digital media age. It is the great enabler to fully understand and apply digital methods within an integrated multi-media digital workflow.” – Marie Elisabeth Mueller

Why storytelling can change communities & mobile is a real gamechanger

In an increasingly connected but divided world, how can mobile storytelling help us share our stories? What opportunities does mobile technology have for social change and information sharing? What does it mean to produce content in a content-overloaded society, and how can increased media literacy help us to protect democracy?

Marie Elisabeth Muller, a Professor of Innovative Content Strategies at the University of Stuttgart, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her work on mobile communication and storytelling. As a journalist, Marie is passionate about new opportunities for content creation using mobile technology, and believes that with proper media literacy, social media can help us to become more engaged, critical, and open people, better able to share our own stories and connect around the globe.

For her, social media doesn’t have to mean ‘dumbing down’, but can instead be a learning area in which we all have the chance to look beyond our own narrow views, and share our stories with the world.

Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

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Read the transcript of Marie Elisabeth Müller's Video here

Marie: My name is Marie Elisabeth Mueller. I am Professor of Innovative Content Strategies at the Media University in Stuttgart and I work at the Department of Media and Management focusing on mobile communication and storytelling with immersive technologies.

Nerina: Maria Elisabeth innovative content strategy for whom? Who are your students?

Marie: That is a very interesting question because from my background and also from my perspective I work with journalistic storytelling: the true stories, with verified stories and my students are not journalistic students. Most of them go into content marketing, go to agencies later they have a wide variety of professions in the online media and the digital media industry for them. So I work with them on story telling that is credible, that brings value to the user and it’s from the start we look at the benefits of the user and what is our relationship and what could be of value for both of us.

Nerina: What is in your opinion the most important message that your students get out of your lectures?

Marie: Yeah, mobile is first. With nothing else other than our smartphones in our pockets which are fully equipped media house, it’s a fully equipped publishing house. So that is the first thing you have to understand when it comes to mobile. The whole topic of mobile communication that is really a paradigm shift with respect to everything: workflow distribution, revenue payment model, the whole industry that is really upside down and that is new. Still we can see a reluctance within the industry and you see it more also at the universities.

So that is something that may be most important is just to raise awareness and to teach the application of mobile communication, working with mobile devises, thinking mobile, mobile is also about mobile mindset we often explore and I think that is my message. Open up for mobile because I believe we are already on the trend from mobile to variables. So I think that there’s an urgency to think about how mobile works, how does it really affect the industry, where are the pros, what can be the benefits, how can we manage to find a way to build up revenue by mobile it’s a completely diversified products line also. So all these things it’s very complex, it’s challenging our world and the innovation speed we live in and that is where I want to take my students.

Nerina: What does it mean to produce content in a content overloaded society?

Marie: Internet is online, online is social media, and social media is mobile and with mobile you reach out potentially to like four billion people and that is increasing. So it’s a lot of noise. Social media and mobile live from credibility and from credible people speaking content, being interactive, developing content maybe together interactively and in live format with these users. So content becomes much more of a story. Somebody tells a story and the person telling the story is a guide and he’s not somebody who sells something or who wants to bring a message across and that’s the end of it, you’re not talking down to people. Content becomes an interactive story pattern. Even if you want to just really inform or bring across a product you have to connect it with a story how it is useful for people, for real life people. It has nothing to do with former ways of marketing I think that changed a lot. So content basically is stories.

Nerina: What kind of skills do you think your students are going to need the most?

Marie: That is also very interesting for me because the longer I work at the university and now it’s in my fourth year I understand that journalistic skills are relevant for every story teller today and everybody is a potential story teller. So you need from the start to know how to verify content, photos, videos, interviews, how to verify your sources and the material, how to report, how to tell a story it is very important to know how to do it, but then don’t forget data.

Today we start when you want to be successful with your stories out in this noise, the environment of four billion potential people then you have to analyze before you find the story and before you produce the story who is interested in that and who do you want to reach out to and which platform demands which format, which tools are available. That in itself is innovative and that is something that is also facing a lot of resistance and reluctance within the journalistic and also the marketing industry. Because I think in the past all the professional profiles were clearly distinguished but if we talk about mobile and content stories we talk about maybe one person who can do it all or a newsroom backing up this data analytics and also helping with the distribution. But producing the story is up to one person with his or her mobile. So these are really valuable and new skills and everything develops so fast and that is why we have to be open and innovative on the fly.

Nerina: You’re really passionate about mobile storytelling and you have also a new website and you write articles on medium. Where does this passion come from?

Marie: I am so passionate about that maybe because in my own professional biography and in my own life I am a timeline of media evolution. My grandfather bought a printer, my father was the first printer and in the Second World War he learnt how to print. I have worked for 15 years for a German public broadcast station and for many other media as well and my focus was on radio. So I learnt that not use I, not to use the first person, I learned to talk down on people and that’s it. You tell a story and that’s it, end of the story.

In German we have a saying like it is “versendet”. It went on air and bye, bye you never hear from it again and readers, users and listeners who came back and wrote letters also they were ridiculed, nobody would take them seriously. So that changed dramatically and that is why I am so passionate about it because that has the potential but I see that it breaks down walls and I am very passionate about fairness, equality, also gender equality. Giving underrepresented groups a voice or make them aware that they can become their own spokespersons today everybody has a mobile right now. So this potential to open the eyes and the minds for it that is what I am very passionate about and also my experience.

I have done a lot of work shops now internationally in India, also in the US than here in German, also in communities not only at the university and the feedback we receive and I receive is overwhelmingly positive. When I go there and explore and produce stories on this mobile my workshop participants most often the first time that they hear something positive about using social media for their stories, for credible stories and I think that made me also very passionate to give that to the people not to warn all the time. When other media were invented and introduced to the masses a lot of warnings came up: it’s dangerous, you will become a stupid person basically.

But I think it’s important that we learn how to use them in our own way and also about the negative side but how can you prevent, how can you work with privacy setting and how you can figure out what is a verified photo and what not. So we have all these tools and if you increase media literacy even in the primary schools I think we should go and not warn the kids about using their smartphones but train them to use them right so that they have this powerful means. Then it would protect also our democratic societies. If you don’t learn how to work with mobile and social media they know it and they will manipulate people a lot. So there are plenty of reasons why I am so passionate about it and it’s very, very important for the future of our societies to learn how mobile communication works properly.

Nerina: On your website there is an amazing picture of you being interviewed by a very young reporter. Could you tell me more about this?

Marie: That was the most touching experience for me in my experience with mobile communication. In last February I went to India and then I spent one week in Kerala and I visited a primary school who could produce without any external funding a news show with mobile only on YouTube. They highly appreciated that I made the effort from their perspective to go there and to encourage the children and to tell them how relevant it is and I am convinced, I believe that these children are the youngest mobile reporters you will find in the world and it’s their own initiative. The teachers are great, the children are great so they built this newsroom and I think that is what I love to support.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learnt from this experience?

Marie: Maybe it’s visible in this experience that is typical from my experience as well in the digital space that it’s a very wrong approach if you think that you’re isolated with your smartphone and then you chat to strangers and foreigners but you never really leave . No this is prejudice. No, I am a model to show you can get in touch through a smartphone, through social media and then you will also meet and even if it’s 7000 KM away or 4000 KM away you will meet.

I see it in my young students also here in at the German Media University that they don’t see the opportunity to “just” chat or to just do an interview by using Twitter. So we started this and it’s really makes them very excited about it, they think they can really make a difference. That is what they feel in one second that they can reach out and then even famous influencers or journalists come back. They do a quick Twitter interview in 15 minutes they take the time and then they are connected and knowledge has been shared and it’s published. So that is a very exciting experience and you could never reach out and make this experience in some groups and also powerful movements if you were not using mobile. With this mobile communication you can reach out to everybody literally and I think that is a very powerful message.

Nerina: Why did you become a journalist?

Marie: I personally want to make a difference. I’ve always wanted to work with people. I had the opportunity to stay in the university for example but I wanted to go out and talk to the people and that is also what you could see in this radio and now this mobile it’s very oral, it’s a very intimate approach so to speak. When I say from a spatial perspective you don’t talk down to people and now users are also brought into the story, immersed into the story. Journalism is becoming much more of a service.

Content marketing is also a service. You don’t want to talk people into buying something that they don’t need that’s old, it’s old fashioned, and it’s over. People are much more aware now of what is happening and they want to be taken seriously and that was obvious. It’s already been about the little child. I like to talk to people, go out, find out more about them and so maybe I’m not used to talk a lot about myself. It’s not so much about myself it’s more like about connecting and talking to other people that’s really relevant to me.

Nerina: Is there somebody who inspired you?

Marie: I think the story of my grandfather who I never met, he died before I was born. So my grandfather came from Poland, from Poznan and he literally walked to Hamburg and then went on to Duisburg and opened a printing enterprise and I am very proud of him and his family. Because I think it’s bold; it is the media enterprise and also it was very innovative at the time and print means a lot to me. Everything started with printing in the media industry so I value that but I also think that it’s time to go ahead and embrace mobile and wearable and the marvelous technologies now.

Nerina: Are we going to read paper books in the future?

Marie: I think we will always read and people always listen to podcasts for example. So for a lot of words. Words are relevant not only visuals but books maybe it is something that’s becoming exclusive. I don’t think they will completely die out but I think just for practical habits, yeah I’m also used to reading on my mobile and books will be exclusive products in the future.

Nerina: Do you have a favorite book?

Marie: If I would mention a favorite book I would mention two books because I don’t want to mention only men. I have made it also one of my goals is to always create equality in perspective. So I really love Julian Barnes and his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. There’s a history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters which l love this book very much. I am also very fond about the literally report about Hanna Krall, the Polish writer and journalist, she is both and she’s a great model for me.

Nerina: Why is she a role model for you?

Marie: Because she is a woman and she fought her political fights and she also managed to write about very painful historical periods and persons. She created this culture to picture lives of victims from the nazis times where the nazis managed to destroy all the documents. That I think is really a role model that she managed to create a credible story telling about lives which are not documented. Which is very difficult to write about it and not to write like in a fictional way but to make very distinctively clear this path is something we don’t know but it could have happened like that, it’s very realistic and this is what we know and then to match that to a very igniting story. That is very, very important and these skills are relevant today for social media as well. When it’s a content story stories have to be short and igniting and we always have both sides. Sometimes we act in a way that is fictional or poetic or we create and the other things are the facts and really the reporting side of things and if both come together in a story I think that is breathtaking.

Nerina: What is the future of stories? What do you think that innovative communication will look like in 10 years?

Marie: I do hope it will be affordable and accessible. If you talk about equality it always has to do with access and access to these stories, access to the technology that enables these stories that is the most important and I fear that it might be very expensive for a big part of the population on earth to afford that. But I would like to make a difference and show with my passion for mobile how to work with low key technology and affordable technology for everybody with these stories.

I see the future when I look at it in my optimistic perspective I see it as a crazy future. We don’t need any devices in our hands everything will be screens and we can project 3D and artificial intelligence objects and data visualisation and everything on the fly everywhere and it’s very personalized. I am looking forward very much to this personalized content and knowledge. We can activate everywhere where we go and walk and communicate about it and that is very exciting.

Nerina: Don’t you think that perhaps we will keep even more storytelling, sharing and listening all in our groups. Do you think that we’re going to be able to communicate outside our bubble?

Marie: Yeah, I am optimistic that we can do it. It comes down to media literacy. If you know how to share and to create and to reach out to communities who want to connect with us then everything is possible. No, I am not pessimistic about it because history tells us the filter bubble started not with the social media or mobile it was there always and it was much worse in the past. People would only vote for the same party for their whole life, they read one newspaper for their whole life and so is that not a filter bubble? An extraordinary filter we’re coming from. So the opportunity to reach out to diversified audience and to make use of our power in our pockets that’s here but we have to teach and to learn how.

Nerina: You said that you would like to make a difference. What is the most important difference that you would like to make?

Marie: From today I would say I would like to make a difference really for underrepresented groups and also for equality; for gender equality. I am tired, I am so tired of hearing all these excuses why there are only one or two women on the podium and six or seven men and to always see this inequality in representation of women and men in the media for example. I’m so tired and it all boils down to human rights for me and to interests that is interests against women rights and I would like to make a difference here.

Nerina: What do you like doing when you are not working and dreaming about mobile story telling?

Marie: Writing. I am writing whenever I have time and that gives me complete peace and peace of mind and I can forget everything if I am able to write.

Nerina: What do you write?

Marie: I write true stories.

Nerina: A little bit more? I am curious.

Marie: I write novels. I haven’t published a novel yet but I am writing on a very personal story about my family and I am writing about a sweet girl in Berlin which is a more entertaining novel. So I have several projects and I have been a writer since I could sing, since I was girl.

Nerina: I am really looking forward to reading your novels in a real book. Thank you so much for this conversation Elisabeth.

Marie: Thank you Nerina. It was a great pleasure.

Nerina: And thank you for watching. See you next time again. Bye, ciao.


at Stuttgart Media University in Stuttgart, Germany. Journalist, speaker, writer and mobile and multiplatform communication expert.

“Now Age Storytelling equips journalists and storytellers best for the fragmented digital media age. It is the great enabler to fully understand and apply digital methods within an integrated multi-media digital workflow.” – Marie Elisabeth Mueller

Anne Murray

Anne Murray
Artist and curator

Exhibitions of her work in Turkey, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, China, Belgium and many other places around the world.

Can art change the world?

What is ‘art’? Why do we need it? How have artists throughout history been drivers for social change, and how can they continue to be so in a world that’s rapidly changing?

Anne Murray, a nomadic artist and curator, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her work connecting artists around the world through her platform Cloud Conversations. As an artist herself, Anne has exhibited her work globally, and is passionate about helping artists to tackle issues such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, islamophobia, and other social concerns in their work, by setting up spaces where they can communicate with each other and grow.

For her, art serves many purposes, from helping people to see they aren’t alone, to giving a voice to the feelings we all have as human beings. Through Cloud Conversations, she’s preoccupied with how people can use their knowledge and experience of art to look beyond current world situations, find solutions, and help to create dialogues for change.

Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

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Read the transcript of Anne Murray's Video here

Anne: My name is Anne Murray and I’m an artist and a curator. I’m working on the curatorial research project that is called Cloud Conversations. I am a nomadic artist. So, I don’t really have a home base but mostly I return to Barcelona. So, I guess that would be my home base.

Nerina: Could you tell me more about this project?

Anne: Yes. The project is connecting artists from different parts of the world, they’re working in different disciplines, different media from: video art, photography, painting, sculpture, installation work, music, all different kinds of art forms and they’re working on different themes. The themes are to do with xenophobia, sexism, racism, Islamophobia and all kinds of global issues including climate change.

Nerina: How did you become an artist?

Anne: I don’t know if I would say that I became an artist. I would say that always throughout my life I was very curious and reflective and I spent a lot of time isolated, alone, just creating things and people started to call me an artist and that’s how it happened. And how I became a curator was really I had an interest in connecting different artists together because I saw that when you put the different artists’ work together it’s like the work itself has a conversation amongst other works. I thought it would be interesting to start to connect the artists and have them have conversations and it stimulates new work and also makes artists feel like they are not alone. They’re working in different parts the world on similar themes and they feel bolstered by that, they really feel more support.

Nerina: Are there some moments or some experiences that really determined or influenced who you are now? 

Anne: I was the only girl, I was the youngest and as I said I spent a lot of time alone because also my brothers were a lot older than me. I think that when you live like that you spend a lot of time reflecting and thinking and kind of developing different ideas. My father read poetry at the dinner table a lot and I really loved poetry and I guess that really influenced my development of the way that I thought and interacted with the world and reflected upon it.

My father died when I was 13 and I think that that really changed my life a lot because it made me realize how important it was to actually seek the things that you really care about and to try new things that you’re afraid of because life is short and it really made me aware of that and aware of the fact that the only thing that we can really rely on and count on in life is change. Things will change, people will live or die, or nature will change, everything around you will change and once you embrace that it really makes life a bit simpler and easier. Because even if you’re in the most difficult turmoil you know it can’t happen forever.

Nerina: Who are you as an artist?

Anne: I create video poetry. So I often go to different countries, staying in artists residencies. I make proposals for different ideas that are related to different things that are going on in current events in those countries, sometimes political issues, sometimes more personal issues and I write poetry. I record my voice and I put that together with imagery and the imagery often has an abstract connection to the words so it leaves room for interpretation and room for a bit of your own interaction, what you bring to it. It’s a little bit more free. It’s not so determined like a play or a movie it gives you a chance to enter into it and leave and enter again like poetry itself. I feel like poetry when you read a line and you read it again you see it in different ways each time you experience it and that’s what I’m looking for in my work.

Nerina: Why video poetry? What does video add to poetry?

Anne: I have always been as well a visual artist as a writer and so it came about naturally. I mean I started I was doing really large-scale drawings, painting on drawings and I started just writing phrases. I didn’t really think of them as poems at first but they became poems and I realized later of course because of my dad I had been exposed to a lot of poetry. Eventually I took… in my very last semester of graduate school, I took a video class and I made my first video poem then and I really loved that combination of things. It really for me it gave me everything I needed in the experience of creating a work.

Nerina: You are a nomadic artist. Why nomadic? 

Anne: It is a good question. I think that what happens when you live in different kinds of environments you’re constantly challenged and challenged in a way where you have to see yourself from the outside and the inside at the same time. Because you see the reflection of yourself in other people; how they react to you, how you behave and you start to have to accept that not all things are the same and your way is not right. It might work in some places, but it doesn’t work in all places and I really, really enjoy this metacognition and having an awareness and making changes and it really sparks my ideas tremendously about how I want to create work. I am fascinated by the interaction that I’ve had with so many different people from different cultures. I feel that it is expanded my mind tremendously. That you actually have many different options as a human being about how you’re going to interact with people, how you’re going to depend on them, how you’re going to you embody and embrace the idea of working as a community and I love it, I love that. So that’s why.

Nerina: Is there a place where you have felt a special connection to? 

Anne: Most recently I was just in Algeria and I really loved it. I was there for the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art in Oran. I had a work exposed there and I was really impressed by the generosity of people and their curiosity and also that they really felt it was important to understand from the artist what their intentions were and they asked a lot of really great questions when I was at the exhibit. It was very inspiring as an artist because often you can have an exhibition and maybe people come to an opening and they’re a little bit afraid to ask questions. Maybe they are intimidated by the art world, but I didn’t find that there. I found there was a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for an idea of what art could be and how far it could go and how it could connect to their own lives and I loved it.

Nerina: Which was the question that impressed you the most?

Anne: Somebody asked me about how I came up with the idea for the piece that I showed. The piece that I showed was called Exquisite Exodus and they really wanted to know why personally I had made the choices of the poem; the things that I said in the poem. Because in the poem I talk about the blue sky and it being a point of reference and something that makes me feel a sense of home.

Because the pieces about the Exodus of course from Syria and it’s relating my own life and my own experiences to what people go through when they have to leave there homes. I was thinking about having lived away from any sort of home for many years and traveling from one month to the next to do these projects of what is my focal point, where was the place where I call home and what can remind me of that and what would it be for somebody who had lost everything that was their home. Even the buildings, the cities are destroyed in Syria and so I thought it’s the blue sky.

When you look at the blue sky from anywhere in the world you can feel a sense of the grander scale of things and a sense that you have some constancy and some degree of change. So that for me gave me a sense of home and I related that to what perhaps if you are someone who has lost her home what you might think of or look at to have a sense of security.

Nerina: Why do we need art?

Anne: This is probably the biggest question every artist asks themselves, and many people and communities ask. I think that art serves many purposes and it can function in society in a lot of different ways.

For myself the way that I’ve started to use art is to help people to see that they aren’t alone, that there are connections between things, to give a voice to the feelings that we have as human beings that we often have trouble expressing and that we can relate to when we in theater and music and visual art. When you see those feeling expressed you can expel them and you can move onto the next thing and really that cathartic element of art is very, very crucial.

But another element of it is also how you can use your knowledge and your experience of art to look beyond current situations and to find solutions. Because art can connect people, you can create community projects and you can connect artists from across the world and find solutions for problems. Problems such as: xenophobia, sexism, racism. How do we address these problems? Artists find creative ways to do that and to create dialogues and so art serves a purpose where we have a gap in society.

Where there are many things that we look at in the media and we feel helpless. What can we do or what do you do? This is just human beings. These are just things that happen over and over again in history. It’s not true. Actually, if you look at history it’s often people who have looked at things from the outside, from a bit of distance, from a creative effort in any way with some different sense of logic that have created a way and a path towards change. So art’s purpose really is to create change and to embrace change.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you’ve learnt from this project? 

Anne: The most important lesson that I have learned is to have compassion, to really understand what it is to be compassionate. From living in different cultures, from experiencing different cultures and creating works that are related to a whole different cultural background in different countries I have learned so much about compassion. About how when we see things and perceive things the window that we are looking through can be very narrow and that compassion is actually looking at something from multiple windows and that that’s really beautiful.

Nerina: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Anne: This is a tough question. But of course I would like to have a pavilion at the Venice Biennial and I think I would like to have an in four years. Maybe that’s not enough time and after that I hope that I will still be working on this project; the Cloud Conversations research and doing curatorial work and also as a fine artist: as a video artist, a video poet. I hope to be in different museums around the world.

I want to be an artist like Marina Abramovic. I really admire her work. I got to meet her recently at the Serpentine Gallery. It was actually about three years ago, but it really impressed me. Her compassion and her kindness and actually we both cried when we met. She hugged me and she handed me a tissue. I was so amazed and I thought wow you know when you become a star, an artist star it doesn’t have to mean that you lose your sense of self and your sense of kindness and that really gave me the drive to keep going and to feel that I could also be one of these great artists in this century.

Nerina: Why is she your hero?

Anne: You know, at first when I was younger I didn’t understand her work. I thought maybe it was a bit crazy you know to allow people to take weapons and cut her. Like she put them out on the table and people had the option to do whatever they wanted to her in one of her performances and I didn’t really understand and now I completely understand. I think that to expose yourself, to be as vulnerable as possible to humanity is probably the bravest thing that you could ever do and the biggest trust and faith in people and that’s why.

Nerina: What keeps you going? What motivates you?

Anne: Sometimes it’s hard to keep going but I have this incredible drive. I think I have this passion that it’s unstoppable and the more momentum I gain the more I keep going. There’s a lot of times when I realize that people come to me there is a moment when maybe I feel like it’s a little bit too hard and always, always there’s somebody who comes to me and says something about how meaningful what I’m doing is and how important it is and it’s like a treasure.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Anne: I want everyone to have that openness to experience life and to accept that all the different perspectives are important, and because of that you can experience life with the utmost richness, a depth beyond anything you can imagine.

Nerina: There are people who say that they do not understand art or they do not understand poetry. What would you tell them?

Anne: Every piece and every moment is a piece for you to experience. Because for myself there has been work like I talked about Marina Abramovic’s work. When I was younger I didn’t have the life experience really to even understand what she was doing and a huge part of that wisdom that comes from your life experience is what helps you to access and understand and indulge in art. It’s something that you indulge in, that you take a moment and it’s like eating chocolate. It’s like you can take that richness in and remember it and it’s not for everyone at every moment but there is something to be taken from art for everyone.

It’s just that you have to accept and understand that perhaps you need to also give something in the experience of looking at a piece of art, as a viewer you have to read and educate yourself and understand and try to look at what’s the perspective, the context of a piece of work is. Like reading a book the literature that you read you look at what country the person was from, what with her political situations, what was the culture like when a book was written. You have the whole context of life experience it’s the same with any person when you meet somebody. A lot of people maybe you like right away but then there are other people who are more quiet and you’re not sure, and those sometimes are the people that you really should spend time with because they have so much hidden inside and it takes time to know them and a piece of art is like that. You need to spend time with it like you would spend time with a child or a friend or a grandparent.

Nerina: Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are these kinds of connections of artists so important? 

Anne: It’s interesting because when I was in art school I didn’t feel this. I felt that a lot of times our differences were highlighted as artists instead of our connections. When you finish school and then you go out into the world and you’re alone in your studio it’s hard, it’s a difficult process to then connect and understand things. And I think that it really helps artists when they connect with each other, when they see how they see things, how they examine things, how they reflect on the world is similar and that those things can as a community working from around the world create and can be a catalyst for change in the world, for society, for good in the world.

I mean, of course, you can use it for something negative too; it’s a very powerful thing to create a piece of work. We know that, we see that, we see how in some countries artists are put in jail for creating a painting. It’s happened in Turkey to a young woman. She also got almost three years in jail for doing a painting. Art is powerful. It’s something that we know it’s powerful because it taps into and connects with something that’s so much from inside our humanity of the core of who we are as human beings, it taps into our emotions, our life experiences, all of the things that we care about and because artists are alone in creating we need to help them. We need to give them the chance to connect with each other so that they don’t become too fearful and give up or die you know from lack of attention really. It’s so important because they are like the shamans of society, they can bring to us something that we wouldn’t have in our lives without them.

Nerina: Why does Anne need poetry? 

Anne: I need it because without it I have no way to express my life experience and I feel this need. Perhaps it’s a human need, maybe it’s a selfish need or something that we need to capture our life experience and give it some kind of precious attention. So when I create a poem it’s sort of like a talisman. That talisman holds within it my feelings, my emotions, my perception at a particular point in my life that I can go back to again and I can feel it again and I can feel it in the same way that I felt it in that moment and otherwise I can’t.

You know, when I look at a photo it doesn’t have quite that quality but with words I feel it. Because I’m very, very selective about my words and there’s a richness in poetry that is very visual and it can capture the vision of an experience, the essence of something for me in such a powerful way that I really treasure being able to read it again. So that’s why.

Nerina: Is there a poem that you like in a special way? 

Anne: Perhaps I can read something. Can we stop then I can take the line?

Nerina: Oh, please it will be great. 

Anne: Yes, I’ll read a line from a poem it’s called A Weary Thing It Is. It’s about the boundary between love and friendship and kind of questioning that.


Exhibitions of her work in Turkey, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, China, Belgium and many other places around the world.

Martin Clauss

Martin Clauss
Professor of Medieval History

University of Chemnitz, Germany

The Middle Ages, war, and perspectives

Is our picture of the Middle Ages correct? Was it all about knights in shining armour? Was it the time of kings and heroes or was it the most brutal period in human history? Martin Clauss discusses why our understanding of the Middle Ages is a modern construction, what our society will look like to our ancestors, and why we need history.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Martin Clauss's Video here

Martin: My name is Martin Clauss. I am a professor of Medieval History at the University of Chemnitz, in Saxony, in Germany.

Nerina: And what are your main research topics?

Martin: The medieval history of Europe and within the medieval period, I specialize in the history of war and warfare.

Nerina: Why are you so interested in war?

Martin: The middle ages are a period full of warfare. There’s basically in each year, in every country there’s war and so you would have to study war and warfare to understand the medieval period as a whole and this is why it is important for me as a medievalist and then I think it is an important topic for the public. I mean, we have a certain image about the Middle Ages and warfare is always part of this image. We all have a picture of knights in our heads with shining armor, fighting brave battles and I think as a professional medievalist this is my duty to say something against this picture and to correct it to some extent and to make clear that war in the Middle Ages as every war is a brutal and bloody thing in the first place and there’s nothing to do with heroism but with manslaughter and a lot of suffering.

Nerina: What kind of sources do you use? 

Martin: The interesting thing is that studying warfare and war you can basically use all kind of source material. War is a topic in basically everything we have from the Middle Ages. You have written source like historiography, chronicles talking about war all the time. Then you have what we call medieval literature like the big romances and everything, there’s war all over the place. Then you have pictures, you have legislation, you have laws of war, laws of warfare. Then you have archeological remains – castles, city walls and everything.  So it’s a very wide range of topics. I am specializing on historiography, so people who write history in the Middle Ages and the way they talk about war, the way they use language to describe or better to narrate war in the Middle Ages.

Nerina: You wrote that war is a matter of perspective. Could you tell me more about it? 

Martin: Yeah, that’s a very interesting thing. One big research topic I made a couple of years ago is about defeat, about the question how defeat is seen and judged in medieval historiography and here we can see very clearly that it is always a matter of perspective. I mean, the losing side and the winning side, they tell totally different stories about war. It is a bit the same as we can see today. I mean if you look at contemporary warfare, the Americans have a different perspective on their war in Afghanistan or Iraq than the Iraqi people have and this is pretty much the same in the Middle Ages.

The loser tells the story about bad fate, about bad luck, and the winner tells the story about God helping the right side and bringing justice to the good cause and so we have very different stories here. And I think in history basically everything is a matter of perspective but with warfare, it comes much more clear than in many other topics.

Nerina: How did the normal person experience war? 

Martin: This is a question we would like to know more about but for the middle ages we don’t know much about that. That’s one thing we have to admit. Contemporary history: First World War, Second World War and so on, we have a lot of sources about the normal man, like the average people writing diaries, or something, or writing letters. We don’t have these things for the middle ages. In the Middle Ages the sources are very much concentrated on the higher end of society: kings, queens, noble men, and so, to find out how the normal citizen, for example, experienced warfare, is very, very difficult. We can only make some assumptions, we can look at the descriptions, we can see the extent of destruction, of the devastation and we can conclude that the people suffered a lot, but it’s very difficult to pinpoint it exactly.

We obviously have to take it into account that the story is the one thing and the real history, the real war is another thing. Sometimes, very rarely, we get a glimpse of the real war when there are people complaining about the cold, the suffering, the hunger. For example, there’s one poem in there soldier described that they have always been hungry on the campaign because there was not enough food, and it was terribly cold under the armor and it was raining. So sometimes, we get this kind of real picture of warfare but normally we have this disconnection. The people who waged war see it as a privilege and this is why they write about heroism.

And this is only true for a very small proportion of the people actually fighting because in medieval war there were peasants fighting as well but nobody writes about them, they don’t have a voice basically, so they just kind of disappear in the chronicles.  And the chronicles focus only on the heroes, on the bright side of war if you want to say that.

Nerina: Why do we have this connection between war and hero?

Martin: Yeah, in the Middle Ages we can clearly see that there’s connection between the stories that are told about war and heroes. So, it’s the story that makes the hero and this is why…Why is that? The stories are written for the aristocracy and the aristocracy is in power, aristocracy has its social function is to protect the people, to protect the people by waging war. This is the ideal of the middle ages. And so, being able to fight in war is a presumption to be part of the aristocracy, to be part of the leading class. And the other explanation is perhaps in terms of gender that it’s in the ancient times and the middle ages as well, that there’s a connection between manhood and warfare and violence. So, the real man is able to execute violence in war and this makes him a great hero and so these two come to the end that there’s a strong connection between warfare and heroism and in some parts of society war is the only way to be a hero.

You can, for example, this is a very recent research topic, we look at the connection between kingship and war and here we got the impression that when a man becomes king, so he’s a young king so to speak, then the tendency that he wages war is higher because he has to prove himself as king, obviously by waging war. So let’s say he becomes king and then he goes on a campaign two or three times and then he proves himself as a warrior king and then he can stop doing that. So when he’s older, an older king then he doesn’t go to warfare that much.

Nerina: What kind of lesson did you learn from your research?

Martin: Yeah, the first lesson is that our picture of the Middle Ages, we have to be very careful with it. You know, we look at the movies we see the bright shining armor knight things, this is not how the medieval times really were. So it’s important to really understand that the middle ages are a construction. A construction of modern thinkers. So what we have now is the Middle Age’s that are our Middle Ages. The Middle Ages we produce by researching, by writing books, by making films, everything. So I think it’s interesting and important to understand this character of construction that the Middle Ages have.

So this is the first lesson for me as a medievalist, this is an important thing. But on a broader scale, I’d say thinking about warfare in terms of heroism is not only a medieval phenomenon. I mean we see it today. If you look at modern movies about modern warfare, you always got this hero plot. It’s like, you know, the one brave soldier ignoring the command and then fighting bravely against the laws. And I think this can be quite dangerous if you think about war only in terms of heroism. You should take the broader picture and you should try to understand how these narratives about heroism, how they work.

Nerina: And Martin what do you think that a historian, let’s say in 500 years, will think about us? 

Martin: Yeah, this is an interesting mind experiment and obviously I do that a lot with my students; to tell them you know when we look at what we produce as sources for example. If you sit in a seminar and we write our notes and then somebody finds these notes in 500 years or 3,000 years’ time what will he think or she thinks about this seminar. When our society is going to be looked at in the future I think they will be the impression that it is a very complex and to some extent very irrational society and I think historians will consider our time as very individualistic. So people tend to look at their own lives, the lives of their families and they stopped caring about the bigger picture to some extent. So it’s a society based on individualism and it’s a…how to say that… it’s a dissatisfied society.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of? 

Martin: Well, first of all, a society where men and women are treated equally. This is some – I have two daughters myself and so I got the impression that we still live in a society where the gender gap is very, very big, much bigger than it should be. And when I look around, for example, the Germans University system it’s totally male dominated, there are very, very few women. Well, on the other hand, I would like a society where the respect for nature and the respect for the environment is something like you don’t have to argue about. It should be like everybody should think about that like automatically. So these are the two things that in my dream society would be different.

Nerina: Why do we need history?

Martin: So I think you have to look into history to understand how society is working and to understand that some things that people think as granted you know it’s like old they are not as old as people think and if you look back in history a bit further you’ll find totally different setting and that makes understand that the times we’re living and this is not like world it can’t be changed. There can be changes all the time and this is why history is important and it’s good fun of course. I really enjoy doing it.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Martin. 

Martin: Thank you very much. That was a great pleasure.


University of Chemnitz, Germany

Maria de Lourdes Peréz Cruz

Maria de Lourdes Peréz-Cruz
Professor of communication

Escuela de Humanidades Universidad Modelo,
Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.

I love hypertext

People love telling stories, and we do it all the time. New technology has opened new ways of storytelling.

Speech evolved into text and text evolved into hypertext, which brings with it a whole new approach to storytelling.

In this new kind of interactive narrative, the author wants to challenge you to play with all of that structure – the kind of structure you can find on digital media – thanks to the capabilities of hypertext. Maria de Lourdes Perez Cruz wants to rewrite old stories using new media technologies.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Maria de Lourdes Peréz-Cruz's Video here

Maria: My name is Maria de Lourdes Perez Cruz. I am a professor in the Humanities Department of Universidad Modelo here in Mérida, Mexico.

Nerina: What are your main research topics?

Maria: Well, I’m interested in interactive narratives. I study the relationship between hypertext as a narrative structure in every kind of digital media like video games, websites, internet videos or even apps.

Nerina: What is actually a hypertext? 

Maria: Well, the hypertext is an informatics technology; it’s the base of the web. It changes the way we read stuff. It’s a non-sequel structure which links information with electronic hyper-wrinkles. You have all the parts of history in a big space so you can choose the one you want in the order you want. You jump between text, image, music, a piece of audio or even a photo, in the order you want. You choose the path you want as you have many options which the author can give you. You make your personal version of the story. That’s very interesting because it’s a very democratic way that we can make sense of the stories that other people share with us.

Nerina: Why are you so passionate about it? Why is it important to know about hypertext, in your opinion?

Maria: Because it helps you to understand how narratives work. For example, I love video games. I think that video games are new ways of more complex narratives. The interesting thing is, it’s a kind of fight between the team of the authors and you as a reader because they choose how interactive they want to make the structure, how open or how close, how much control they’re going to have, and how interactive they’re going to be. And you have the freedom to change all that you are seeing or all you are interacting with.

The history of hypertext begins in 1945 after the Second World War, a bunch of academic scientists; one of them was Vannevar Bush. He wrote a paper titled “As we may think”. He imagined that maybe the work of all the academics in the world can be in one space. So the hypertext is kind of new but I think we don’t look at that with the attention it deserves because it was a little effort that created all the new ways on intermedia. The new way is so that we can have access to new ways of telling stories.

Nerina: How do you think that these new ways of telling stories are changing the relationship between the author and the reader or the author and the player?

Maria: I think it’s changing in a democratic way. I’d like to think that in this new kind of interactive narratives that the author wants to challenge you to play with all that structure, the kind of structure you can find on digital media, thanks to the hypertext. So it absolutely changes the way you now see the author as another player that is playing with you or is giving you some pieces of information that you can find or you can use whenever you want and change the experience because you are taking the information he gives you. At the end, all you are doing is reading in your own way and making your experience with the story, a personal version of what you want to do with that information that the author provides.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your research?

Maria: Well, I think the most important thing is the narratives, the stories are the most human experience, and you can design them in many ways. Stories of human kind are very few, but you can make many versions of the histories or stories of the human kind, thanks to all the technological or medium development. So I think it’s the most interesting thing that you can create a new version of that story that has been told from the Greeks, for example.

Nerina: Do you have a dream for the future?

Maria: I don’t dream about the future, I have to confess. I don’t make plans for coming years. I live for the moment; I live each day one by one. I try to do my best, it’s like the hypertext structure – I’m living this moment and I have many possibilities. I don’t know what I’m going to choose because there are different contexts and situations. I also experience different feelings at that very moment that can make me choose something. So I don’t make plans, I’m not good at making plans. I just live day by day.

Nerina: Do you have a favorite story?

Maria: Well, I have many favorite stories. I love the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. I love all his stories, as well as some of the stories of Julio Cortazar. But I have to confess that my favorite story is ‘100 years of solitude’ by Garcia Marquez. That was one of the big books that my father gave me when I was a child and I really love the story of the whole family in that book.

Nerina: What is the most important moment in the book for you? What kind of feeling do you remember?

Maria: The interesting thing with ‘100 Years of Solitude’ is that it’s an archetypal story from all the Latin American families. So in my personal history of my family, I recognize some moments of fantasy of some characters that are from both sides of my family, from my father and my mother.  I think that my favorite moment of the story is when ‘Remedios the beauty’ flies to the sky, surrounded by the blank sheets from the house.  That is my favorite part of the book. Sometimes I think that I am going to do the same, I’m going to fly to the sky and disappear!

Nerina: Thank you very much, Maria.

Maria: Thank you!

#followup with Maria de Lourdes Peréz Cruz | Music and identity

Last year, we spoke to Professor Maria de Lourdes Peréz Cruz about her work on hypertext and interactive narratives, and the implications of new technologies on traditional storytelling structures. Recently we interviewed her again, to discover more about her new project on independent music in Yucatán, and how such music is allowing local communities to share their identities.

Watch the video:

Escuela de Humanidades Universidad Modelo,
Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.

Thomas Arnold

Thomas Arnold
Research Associate, Human-Robot Interaction

Laboratory, Tufts University, USA

What is robot ethics?

Recently, there have been many discussions around the ethical issues that a self-driving car would raise. How would it know if a toddler ran out onto the road, and would it react? Would it keep going to preserve the safety of the passenger? Or would it swerve and perhaps risk the life of the person inside the car, in order to save the child on the road? This question is one of many problems which Thomas Arnold tries to solve every day.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Thomas Arnold's Video here

Thomas: I’m Thomas Arnold; a research associate at Tufts University, Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, in the USA.

Nerina: What are you working on right now?

Thomas: Right now I’m working on ethics and social robots. My Master’s and Doctoral work is in philosophy of religion. I still consider myself a scholar working in those fields; I just have a very specific context for it now: to test and apply it.

Nerina: What are robotic ethics actually?

Thomas: Part of robotic ethics is really asking about the specific contexts where robots seem to be coming onto the market and being designed, and really trying to think through carefully what the robots should be doing and how they’re going to be able to do it. Whether that’s elder care, tutoring a child, public safety or repairing something; anything where interacting with human beings is going to happen, that’s what I’m interested in trying to think through.

Nerina: Why do we have to think about this?

Thomas: Recently, there have been many discussions around the ethical issues that a self-driving car could have. How do we know if a toddler runs out on the road, how the car will react? Will it keep going to preserve the safety of the passenger? Will it swerve and perhaps risk the life of the person inside in order to save the child on the road?

That’s a limited case, but none-the-less it’s a case where we have to think about what we want the system to do and why. And the reason we need to think about it is because people have different views about that.

Nerina: What is your approach?

Thomas: We are interested in taking the problem from two directions. On one case, we are interested in how people will react to robots, and how they will expect things from the robots, so we’re interested in how we as human beings will react and what our expectations naturally are in some ways. Then from the other direction, we try to use a combination of approaches, one of them being a rule-based approach. But it’s not simply a matter of rules because we also try to build-in context. We try to represent in the code, in our computational system, different contexts so that the system is able to recognize that if you’re in a kitchen and there’s a knife in the kitchen it means something different, there’s a different set of rules for handing over a knife, what a knife would be, than there would be in a subway where if someone was holding a knife you would draw a different conclusion.

Nerina: Is this a way to try to make robots more human?

Thomas: That’s a really good question. That is I think one of the struggles in our field because I feel the answer is always yes and no. Yes in that, in order to interact with a person well you need to understand when they are responding, when they are in pain, or when something wrong has happened. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to encourage a relationship or expectations that are unrealistic and end up being maybe manipulative.

If a robot intentionally looks or sounds a certain way that a person might think they are actually able to reciprocate or return some type of affection, or that they are hurt or feel pain in the same way that a person does, then that starts to be a problem. We know that already robots being used in different cases are creating bonds with people. In the US military, for US soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are robots that are kind of called dogs. They are shaped a little bit like dogs that detect IEDs; they detect these minds on the ground. The soldiers bond with those robots. They give them funerals when they are damaged beyond functioning, medals, and consider them colleagues in some way.

You can say, well maybe that’s a very difficult environment so maybe the soldiers are in a state of mind where they vulnerable enough to do that. But I really think that’s something that will extend beyond that context. I think people will be drawn to that, and I think it’s a serious ethical issue how we prevent those relationships from being bad for human beings, from being hurtful and deceptive. And maybe this will be the struggle but I really want robotic action to always come back to human beings as being the ones that are responsible. So that when a robot performs something well and is responsive, I would like us not to say, “That robot is human, or that robot is moral”; I would rather say the robot performed a moral action that human beings are responsible for, that our design allowed that moral action to occur.

So ultimately it comes back to us. It comes back to our ethics and our relationships with one another because I think it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves accountable for what the robots do. It will be very tricky and hard. Lawyers and legal professors are already arguing about what happens when a robot does something wrong. Is that just a malfunction? Is the designer responsible? Is the owner responsible? Those questions will be difficult but I really would want to keep as a principle that we are still always accountable in some respect for the systems that are designed.

Nerina: In the end is it a question about what is a human being? Is it a question of who we are?

Thomas: I think part of what makes us human is imagining, how do we recreate ourselves. Not just biologically, but if through craft and technologically. That’s part of what it means to be human. The downside to that are all the shortcomings we are prone to when we try to do that. I think that’s the other side of that part of what makes us human, it’s that we are also flawed in how we imagine. Sometimes our imagination lets us do wonderful things, and sometimes our imagination deceives us as to how things will actually unfold.

I think robots are just another chapter in that story. In the press you have people that want to write headlines, “Will the robots take over?” Will they take over our civilization? I think those are not very helpful because it’s another way to avoid responsibility here and now and the fact that we need to pay attention to how we are treating one another. Robots and artificial intelligence is a reflection of what we think about one another, and how we treat each other as human beings. I think it will be an ongoing debate; your question is still on the table to figure out what we are doing.

Nerina: Do you have a wish for the future?

Thomas: My wish would be that we find a way to live sustainably on our planet.

Nerina: What is life about?

Thomas: I think life is about exploring, learning from one another, struggling, and continuously asking that question of what life’s about.

Nerina: Thank you very much, Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you Nerina.

#follow-up with Thomas Arnold | AI, Robots and Humans

Thomas is Research Associate in the Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, at Tufts University in USA and tells us about the last ideas and trends from his lab. Have a watch!

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:

Laboratory, Tufts University, USA

Pavel Himl

Pavel Himl
Associate Professor of History

Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

History and outsiders

We all learned about history at school, but what do we actually know about history? It’s common for us to know a lot about the rulers of the past, wars, and other important historical figures. But what do we know about the common people? And what do we know about the groups among the common people who weren’t so popular among the majority of the population? What about homosexuals, gypsies, and vagabonds? Himl’s areas of study are those forgotten groups. By studying these “outsiders”, Pavel wants to recreate the views and self-perceptions of these people, and give us an insight into their lives.

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Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Pavel Himl's Video here

Pavel: My name is Pavel Himl, I come from the Czech Republic and I’m an university lecturer in history at Charles University in Prague. I am interested in cultural history in the large sense of the word, and so my main research topics used to be marginalized social groups in 17th and 18th Century: vagrants, vagabonds, gypsies. I also worked on the history of homosexuality in Czech lands, and now I am working on the history of administration and state formation during the enlightenment.

Nerina:Why are these topics so important to you? Why are you so passionate about, for example, outsiders?

Pavel: Firstly, I was surprised that we can get so much evidence about these seemingly lost or forgotten people, so ‘archives’ is the reason number one. The second reason is that I think it tells us a lot about the society when we consider which groups, people, and behavior this society excludes.

Nerina:What is your approach?

Pavel: I would call my approach historical anthropology. This means that I try based on trials to reconstruct the behaviour, and self-perceptions of these groups. How did they act if they had some space to construct their lives and their activity? So I try to look at their lives through their eyes.

Nerina:Is it possible to get really close to these people?

Pavel: It is not completely possible because you don’t dispose about self-evidence. It means you don’t have diaries, memories, and letters of these people. The closest source you have are their depositions, their trials, and this is, of course, a unique situation. But I am convinced that we can still at least approach the view and self-perception of these people.

Nerina:Based on your research, do you think that there are similar reasons for being or becoming an outsider?

Pavel: It’s a good question because I could start thinking about eternal, everlasting, mechanisms which lead to exclusion, but it’s hard to say because the concrete reasons for exclusion change over time, and what remains the same is this situation of being excluded or feeling excluded.

Nerina:What can we learn from history about for example being an outsider?

Pavel: I would say we can learn, or I offer as a historian a lesson to my students and to people who read my articles and books, that we still have to examine or observe closely the situation of people who think they don’t belong to us. You know, to really consider their singular situation and to put aside these stereotypes because partly, they are different and considered the ‘other’.

Nerina:Is there something you feel that we should change in our approach to history?

Pavel: There are a lot of things already changing, and one of the most important to me is the replacement of history by histories; so this tends towards plurality. There are a lot of histories competing in our memory and our media. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this plurality of histories and be attentive to who is speaking, and who is presenting this one possible history to us.

Nerina:What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your research?

Pavel: To pay attention to detail.

Nerina:Why do we need history actually?

Pavel: We are history, and I think we are made by history. History is not foreign, but a part of us and history still influences us. We need history in order to recognize ourselves as individuals, members of different groups, and as speakers of languages. The language itself is a bearer of history which is sort of a container of history. In a language you have segmented different influences and different elements from different times because even when we speak, we are part of these histories.

Nerina:Can we say that if we change our perceptions of the past, we change our perceptions of the present?

Pavel: Absolutely. It’s not that everything that happened in the past is history. There are a lot of lives, events, and things which happened somewhere in the past, but when nobody remembers these past things, they are not part of history. History is only what we are creating for us, what we are writing about, for us. So I consider history rather as a present activity, the choosing, emphasizing, telling, and constructing of stories. In this activity, there is a present activity making history. There is no history without making history.

Nerina:This is really interesting because this means that even your work on outsiders, somehow is to bring them into our history, to make them part of our history.

Pavel: Absolutely. For me it’s also a substantial part of the work of a historian. You choose your object and you bring it to our conscience.

Nerina:What do you do when you’re not researching?

Pavel: I take part in sports, I am a member of the green party and for me, because I am basically a teacher, or university lecturer, the most important topic is education.

Nerina:A wish for the future?

Pavel: My personal wish is that the education system in the Czech Republic would be better, more inclusive, and less competitive.

Nerina:If you could send a letter to a future historian, what would you say?

Pavel: “You will perhaps have a better look on our society than we have, and you will feel that you are the master – you know everything about us in a similar way as I am thinking I really discovered the substance of the society of 18th century; but you may be wrong.”

Nerina:Thank you very much, Pavel.

Pavel: You’re welcome Nerina.

#followup with Pavel Himl | The beginning of central administration in middle Europe

We spoke with Pavel last year, in one of our first ever interviews for Traces.Dreams. He is an historian based in Prague. Last time, he explained to us about the details of his new project. Do you want to learn more? Have a watch!

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