Oleg Sobchuk will defend thesis on cultural evolution, November 16th, 2018

On 16 November at 12 Oleg Sobchuk will defend his doctoral thesis  „Charting Artistic Evolution:  An Essay in Theory“.

Professor Arne Merilai, University of Tartu
Professor Franco Moretti, École polytechnique fédéralede Lausanne, Stanford University

Dr. Katja Mellmann, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Contemporary humanities do not seem to be interested in answering questions that begin with why. Why, before 1900, paintings were mostly mimetic, but, after 1900, mostly abstract? Why did the Russian novel reach its height in the second half of the nineteenth century – not earlier or later? Why does vers libre prevail in contemporary lyrical poetry? We hardly know. Probably these ques-tions are not impossible to answer, but there has been little effort made to address them. Humanities have tended to ask adjacent questions instead, those beginning with when, how, or who. So why is why underappreciated? I think that this lack of interest is rooted in a much larger, fundamental problem: we do not yet have a theory of art that would let us answer (or even pose) the why questions – a diachronic theory of art. Charting Artistic Evolution: An Essay in Theory presents a project of precisely that. It argues that the ideographic approach practiced in the humanities would benefit from accompaniment by a different, nomothetic approach, common in the sciences. We should look not only for the particular – a book, an author, a stylistic device – but also for the general: large historical trends, macro-patterns, tectonic shifts in the artistic field. The new discipline of digital humanities moves in this direction; it detects broad patterns and trends in the data. However, this growing stack of information, collected through sophisticated methods – from sentiment analysis to topic modeling – needs to be explained. How can we make sense of the diachronic changes? In my dissertation, I have employed the cultural evolution theory to understand artistic history. Art forms – devices, plot formulas, genres – get invented (through a random serendipity or intentional bricolage); they gain or lose their popularity depending on how successfully they press the buttons of the “emotion keyboard” in our brains; successful art forms are reproduced by the subsequent generations of writers or film directors who keep them “alive” for decades, or even centuries. I present these and many other general principles of artistic evolution and use them to explain various cases in art history. Why did Hollywood film crews become larger over time? Why do mystery movies obtain more complex temporal structure? Why is the literary field so unequal: a handful of famous authors and a majority of forgotten ones? Why do certain social environments boost artistic creativity? I demonstrate that all these why questions can be answered with suitable methods: quantitative and qualitative – and a suitable theory: cultural evolution.

Pdf of the thesis is available at http://hdl.handle.net/10062/62406

More information: Hille Roots, HVKU coordinator, hille.roots@ut.ee