Author: Joshua

Who wants to be a Revolutionary?

Who wants to be a Revolutionary? That’s pretty much the question that Marcos Perez was trying to answer from the perspective of a sociologist. And yes, it is an incredibly interesting question to look at, especially to know the different sociological theories and how they have evolved over the 20th century. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, prominent thinking included Durkheim’s “Collective Effervescence” and also the ideas of “crowd mentality” – how individuality is lost when you enter a crowd. I personally haven’t spent much time in large crowds since I normally try to avoid them, but I think anyone could attest to the difference in energy that a crowd can have—an energy that no single person can have on their own, or obvious hope to generate without a crowd. A random example would be seeing a movie in the theater. Sometimes it’s nice to have the whole place to yourself and a few friends and then it feels like a private showing. But when I went to see Star Wars last year and the theater was totally packed with big fans, there was an electrifying feel in the air with all the excitement emanating off the crowd. This may not be an apt analogy for something like a protest or insurgency movement, but both contexts share the heightened emotions that come with being in a crowd of people sharing a common moment. I don’t think I can answer why exactly I, or anyone else, would participate in a protest, especially since sociologists have been struggling to answer that question for hundreds of years. I can’t imagine the high costs and personal sacrifice that comes to those who lead the revolutions. Then for those who join a revolution as a revolutionary, Perez mentioned how there isn’t really an incentive for one person, who can’t make much of an additional difference. This leads to a collective action dilemma.  

In the question and answer period after the lecture, the conflict between “global” and “local” was identified as a driver in these recent movements. We could look to what some describe as revolutionary movements in the United States, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, then around the world with far-right movements and decisions like the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. The shocks of globalization have improved many lives, but has also left a lot of people behind. President-elect Donald Trump saw this and used the “local card” politically, and clearly it was a popular move and sentiment that rewarded him. 2016 seems to have been a wakeup call for globalization. Another big topic in the aftermath of the US election has been fake news. How does something like the ability of any individual or organization to post any opinion or fabrication as fact shift the balance of agency vs social structure in revolution? But now I wonder how revolution happens. Perez noted that one train of thought is that the third world will play an important part as a rising actor in global revolution.

 

 

It wasn’t real before, but it is now

Professor Keith Peterson enlightened us about Bruno Latour’s line of thinking that humans have never been modern or revolutionary. I haven’t taken a philosophy class, so I admit I had some trouble following, but a few of the key themes I found to be very interesting. Rather than focusing on whether humans have ever been revolutionary, since that just seems like a matter of definitions, I’m going to focus more on the aspect of scientific inquiry. I found the distinction between scientific knowledge and inquiry as a social construct vs something real, or not clearly real, to be very interesting. Something that isn’t commonly known is just going to seem unnatural or bizarre. There is often just no way for us to relate to a cutting edge scientific finding, and even if it is a concept that we think would be impossible to relate to, if enough people start to believe it, then that shared knowledge all the sudden starts to seem more legitimate and accepted. Eventually something scientific, like microbes, will move to the cultural mainstream, and seem ‘natural’ and be taken for granted. The idea is now the new way that we understand the world around us.

This reminded me of a discussion I’d had with a friend a few weeks before the lecture. We were talking about the current state of scientific knowledge. If we think of the way physics is taught in secondary school vs college, for example, we see that things are very much watered down Newtonian physics in high school rather than including the more “correct” knowledge behind Einstein’s work, relativity, quantum mechanics etc.– basically modern physics – and therefore if you take PH241 at Colby, you learn a lot about why much of what you learned before was wrong, or breaks down under certain conditions. Basically, our scientific knowledge is on a need-to-know basis. Science is a way to explain the world around us, and if I don’t question too much or explore too deeply, then high school physics can more simply, fully, and intuitively explain my world. In this example, behind the simplification of science is a timeline. We still teach the physics of hundreds of years ago in secondary school even though the fundamentals of it aren’t necessarily held up in college or grad school. Even modern physics is up to a hundred years old. Hence, we have this idea of scientific progress, and what’s newer is better (and more complex). Will everything we know today be discounted in the future? Very possibly so. As Professor Peterson said, as it is for all scientific knowledge, everything is relatively tentative and can be updated or modified in the future, even though it may seem relatively stable now. I think it was described as moving from essence to existence to essence again, then back to existence etc. But the way Latour thinks humans understand this phenomenon, and the general perception of the passing of time, is as the abolition of time before the present. Our idea of progress would then be one of a future that is unlike the past. Thus, Latour sees us as detached from the past since we separate ourselves from previous times by events (progress), rather than just the passing of time.

 

“Forgetting” Revolution

Like others, maybe at best I had heard about the Haitian Revolution in the past, but not in enough detail to fully recall it. It was a landmark and unique event that is startlingly absent in public knowledge. I understand there are many other examples of forgotten history because a person can only remember so much, but I wish I knew more about the significance and outcomes of painful past events. The silence surrounding the Haitian Revolution has done us a disservice, but when we separate it from the French Revolution and focus on just the Haitian Revolution, we fill in an important piece in the history of freedom and democracy. There are lessons that can be learned from both the good and bad aspects of the Haitian Revolution.

Memory is one simple way of honoring those who lost lives for a cause. A revolution changes a place, a country, and the world. And for maximum effect, any positive or negative change must be remembered, even if its meaning changes over time. Maybe at points certain ideas or past struggles lose relevance in the public mind, and those are instead held in books and by scholars, but in the future, almost anything could become relevant again. And one of our greatest insights into the future–maybe the only one–is the past, and often we are still surprised by both human future and past.

Like our revolutions themed lecture on monuments by Jeffrey Schnapp from the week before, the past can often be reframed, lost, or destroyed, even if at one time it was seemingly immortalized in stone. As is the saying: Forgetting the past, while not in all cases, may lead to similar mistakes in the future. This can be from something as minute as a mistake on an exam all the way up to a war, or revolutionary struggle for rights. Even very recent and very clear pertinent things sometimes must be reiterated, especially if false notions exist. Like how China recently reminded politicians in the United States that climate change is not an invented hoax, and that furthermore, it was republicans over 30 years ago who began climate negotiations. Now the same party denies its existence. Possibly the only thing worse than forgetting hard lessons learned in the past is actively “forgetting” them by creating misinformation to serve current interests. In the case of the Haitian Revolution, it seems to have been overshadowed or omitted in history books, despite how clearly unique it is from the American and French Revolutions. Haiti was fighting for freedom for all and to abolish slavery, things the US would not fight for or accomplish until many years later. Possibly governments around the time selectively “forgot” and misinformed, or didn’t inform to prevent uprisings against slavery in their countries. This is another example of the danger in covering up world history and only learning and considering one perspective of any historical event. The Haitian Revolution was far ahead of its time, and its recognition is far behind. Hopefully, we continue to gain new perspectives and learn more about forgotten events.

Monument

Different people and scholars have different views on monuments. Some see it as a waste of space, especially in cities, where monuments and memorials are often devoted to the dead they provide less of a concrete service to the living. There’s also many different styles of monument, some grand and imposing like the Arc de Triomphe, and some much smaller. It is hard for me to parse out what makes one monument better than another, if there is such a metric. No matter what though, most modern monuments hold memories to stimulate a though or recollection in a way that seems permanent and unquestionable in scale, hardness and duration. That suggests to me that often the choice material would be stone. But even stone can be torn down or without maintenance be let back into the earth. At some point, will all monuments be forgotten, fade away, or turn into something unrecognizable? Probably so, but it can be a slow change. However, it is a much faster phenomenon for monuments on the “wrong side” of history.

When I think of a monument I think of something permanent that serves to provide a message through time. Being relatively young and alive now, I probably don’t have firsthand memories of what any given monument stands for. I also have my own unique background and so do others, so a monument may mean different things to different people—whether it stirs thoughts or stirs memory. However, overall, a monument will have an overarching message behind it that is collectively understood during a period of time. But Jeffrey Schanpp broached further interesting questions that I had never given much thought to: how does the meaning of a monument change over time, must a monument be permanent, and can a monument be reframed to become relevant again? My short answer to all three questions would now be: It’s complicated.

Schnapp and a team reimagined the Bolzano Victory Monument. He said the goal is to “extract a monument from the history of its genesis into a message of our time.” That’s an incredibly eloquent way of putting it, but also very descriptive. And often, he suggests, there is more value in critically reforming a monument to foster new engagement than to just destroy it and erase its memories from out time. I think I agree with him in most cases. If you had a monument to a truly horrible message then maybe not, but with something that can effectively educate us about the past and not let us forget something that still has relevance now and in the future, it is clearly worthwhile. However, I do understand that people from different backgrounds may have very negative connotations towards a monument or what it stands for, while other will be less affected and feel more objective having different experiences. Reframing a monument in an effective and respectful way can overcome some of this, as is the case with the Bolzano Victory Monument.

Darwin Today

The widespread interpretation of Darwin’s work is largely driven by the classic picture of evolution from ape to human—a series of linear steps moving towards a goal. But this, the ladder-like progression to perfection, is the pre-Darwinian view of evolution. From Darwin, we actually derive the pattern of a branching tree and the process of evolution by natural selection. So, thank you to Judy Stone for helping us finish up the unfinished business of the Darwinian Revolution.

A lot of what Darwin said is not commonly known and I still don’t know. But maybe if his work was better known then it would have more positive implications for society. There was, and still is, the notion of an idealized “type.” We think of what an apple, a pine tree, a squirrel, a human “should” look like. Darwin recognized the centrality and importance of variation within species, and how many things that may appear different are just part of that diversity and very important, not a defect. However, that did not stop the typological thinking. In fact, this mentality continues to be reinforced in the public mind, recently with the increased prominence of “the gene.” As is often and understandably the case, scientific advances must be watered down and distilled to a level that the public can comprehend. Not only does the science need to be simplified, but it also needs to be attention grabbing. The gene fit the bill but it also helps to put people in boxes. Professor Stone noted how there was one a report of what was referred to as a “schizophrenia gene.” This was a completely uninformed representation by the media that mischaracterized scientific findings just to gain readership. This example of how science can be trivialized to a harmful level is not unique, and the role of special interests in science on tobacco and climate change, for example, are similarly disturbing in other ways. Professor Stone was quick to point out that there is certainly no specific single gene mutation that would designate a person as schizophrenic. Reinforced typological thinking and the misunderstanding of human genetic variation have both contributed to widespread societal issues. Optimistically, Judy Stone hope and suggests that a genomics revolution could help us overcome typological thinking and its negative impacts. We certainly hope that if there was more outreach done by evolutionary scientists then racist ideas could finally be broken.

Switching gears a little bit, there were a few things mentioned during the lecture that I vaguely remember from documentaries before but they still managed to blow my mind (probably for the second time). Humans are a very young species, thought to be roughly 150,000 years old, thus we are not all that diverse of a species. We trace out origins back to fourteen different geographically separated populations. It is fascinating to think that there were other hominids roaming the earth not all that long ago and it’s certainly a science that I would like to read up more on in the future.

 

REVOLUTIONgradualismREVOLUTIONgradualismREVOLUTION

One of the key things that Dr. Emanuel mentioned was that while a series of revolutions are very notable and important, equally important is the gradualism in between. After all, some build up, slow as it may be, must be in place to spark a revolution. Unfortunately, this sounds kind of like global warming. Global average temperatures have risen slowly but surely yet there has not been any revolutionary action by us. Yes, there has been slow but useful response to climate. Things like the Paris Climate Agreement are steps in the right direction. Hopefully past and future solutions will be enough to prevent any revolution inducing natural disaster.

The first manifestations of climate science began in observations of glacial erratics, glaciers, and ice sheets. It is incredible to think of the massive continental ice sheets carving out the lands that we know today. Human caused climate change is a widely accepted phenomenon (even if a major political party in the United States refuses to make it a part of their platform). The widespread evidence of an anthropogenic effect on climate seems relatively recently, but its idea was born near the end of the nineteenth century. As an EcoRep at Colby, I appreciate that we have gotten to the point of having positions everywhere to promote more sustainable and environmentally friendly activity.

All over the world greener energy production be it wind, solar, or nuclear is being implemented. A very interesting ongoing debate is over how much nuclear energy we should use. It is an incredible efficient source that many were very excited about in the 20th century, but following disasters in the USSR and more recently in Japan, interest in some places has cooled. Obviously nuclear fusion power plants have the potential to be extremely dangerous, and they generate dangerous waste (though arguably less harmful than the waste created by traditional power plants). Nuclear energy is also never going to run out, while something like coal will. But think, just creating a nuclear power plant itself is an amazing feat and took a series of revolutions and gradualism on its own.

All this said, with developing countries like China and India consuming more and more energy – often clean non-renewable energy – is putting your plastic bottle in the recycling bin rather than the trash going to cut it?

The question becomes (since stopping global climate change from human pollution seems near impossible) can technology solve our problems? It won’t be easy but I think/hope so. The main barrier to do so would be economic, but outcomes of things like sea level rise would be much more expensive. We can scrub carbon dioxide out of the air, cloud seed, artificially adjust the temperature of the planet. However, any of the things humans decide to try could have unintended consequences on a global scale. We will see, but solving this problem will also take a series of revolutions complemented by that ever-important gradualism.

(r)evolution

Almost anyone that you talk to will have some idea of Darwin. That theory of evolution cartoon will probably also come to mind. The common knowledge of Darwin, and the household use of his name is the result of a revolution over a much longer period than we might normally consider. Janet Browne’s lecture on Darwin was very insightful and here I rely on her wealth information and insights. The evolution cartoon and the idea of “progress” was added not by Darwin, but by others in the mid-1900s. Romanization of Darwin was initiated by family member and other Darwin proponents. So how much of the real Darwin does the average person know? Not much. But does that matter in terms of a revolution?

Darwin could have been a name heard much less often. Darwin became an icon for others to use no matter their agenda. Even immediately following his death, friends of Darwin asked that he be buried in Westminster Abbey (against his wishes), turning him into a “secular saint.” Darwin was the centerpiece of the Natural History Museum. His legacy hit a road block when the Darwin statue was removed in the 1920’s when he started to seem a little too old fashioned. After all, genetics was the new science of the early 1900’s, and important connections were not initially drawn to Darwin’s work. But then Darwin came roaring back into the spotlight. It’s fascinating how a scientist who many deem as incredibly important can go in and out of fashion like anything else. It makes me wonder if Darwin will ever leave the mainstream in the future again.

It is hard to understand Darwin as part of the pop culture context. From a t-shirt to a town named after him, the story of a revolution including many other individuals cannot be mentioned. Alfred Russel Wallace came to similar conclusions as Darwin independently, but only scholars know of Wallace’s incredible generosity in supporting Darwin rather than be bitter about him. Wallace got much less glory and many fewer t-shirts.

I can draw a somewhat vague connection to a Janplan class that I took here at Colby. It was called “Strongmen and Populism in Modern Spain and Latin America,” and one of the people we came across was Zapata. Zapata started out totally unknown, then became the leader of a movement in Mexico and an idea that became more important than he did—especially after his death. I’m sure we could name numerous other examples where a person or an icon is adopted for a wider movement or revolution. Maybe this is what Darwin has become? Though he certainly has the resume to back his fame.

Social Media

Facebook and other social media have had a vast impact on how people relate to each other, and it has connected the world. No longer do we have to rely on one viewpoint or the narrative of just a few large news corporations. The content we receive is now our choice more than ever. To compensate, as Khalid said, it seems that the western media prefers to create heroes that their views can attach to, rather than serve up raw details and occurrences that would be more informational.

Where often we may find social media to just be a little bit of fun, and a distraction while we try to study in college, others don’t even have the opportunity to go to college, and it may be their only chance at freedom. Over the internet, information can spread faster than anything. Forget physical pamphlets, now digital ideas are in everyone’s pockets, updated every second.

Growing up in the US, it is incredibly hard, probably impossible, to relate to those living through a war, in constant fear of their life, with no rights and no security for themselves or their family. It is easy to just scroll past anything. In a world of things going viral, content needs to be extreme or unique. In more privileged parts of the world, some people are more likely to linger on the latest post from Kim Kardashian rather than explore the horrific events in Syria or other parts of the world. Part of this is a language barrier and some of it could still be an ignorance – but obviously where we live in the west is just one part of the world, and the large impact of social media in generating the Arab spring was focused where the revolution was happening. With the work of cartoonists, using the universal language of images, ideas can spread far, and be used effectively as art anywhere, like Khalid Albaih’s work which can be stenciled by anyone.

Social media has unfortunately also provided a platform for hate. Ideological extremists, racists, and even politicians, who feel protected by the barrier to interpersonal speech, and sometimes by anonymity will post. While I think more mechanisms must be in place to prevent hateful content, I think the opportunities supplied by the internet certainly outweigh the costs. Furthermore, social media isn’t necessarily creating any divides, but bringing ones to the surface that we might not have noticed before.

Unfortunately, following the Arab spring, oppressive governments, now more technologically aware, are able to block specific content, and even shut off their entire countries’ completely. With that said, can the internet still serve as a platform for full-scale revolution?

Let’s do something about it

Tambora eruption of 1815? Hmm, maybe vaguely rings a bell. The “Year Without a Summer”? Yup, I definitely know about that! But not really – the bits and pieces I heard on NPR a few years ago barely touched on the deeper issues that Gillen Wood approached. Tales of Frankenstein, violence, eating horses, feeding the starving, and revolution! And when you think about it, why wouldn’t a global scale geological event disrupt society and spur a “revolution” of sorts? Using our word, “revolution,” as a metaphor, you could say that we are going through a climate change revolution right now.

Technology has allowed humans to adapt and live relatively comfortably in almost all regional climates across, the earth. Whether it is the bitter cold of Antarctica or the deserts of the southwestern United States, we have climate controlled our living environment and diverted water to where this is none. The potential irony is that cooling down your home in the hot weather is contributing to that warmer weather! Weather and climate drove the human race to innovate shelter, and mechanisms for storing and transporting food, yet can we rely on technology to dig us out of a changing climate, a warming planet? Yes, technology is an answer. But will we be proactive or reactive? At the time of the Tambora eruption, many countries did have fail safes in place for a couple years of food shortages, but not enough. However, they didn’t even know what happened, and obviously had no control over a volcanic eruption. Today we have clear links to earth’s climate change, and we have the time (barely) and the ability to make a change, prepare, and solve the problem of waste and pollution.

Unfortunately, there are already many people suffering from climate change and a shortage of food and water. Why must it be that events of extreme human suffering and war be the events that spur our large scale innovation? Gillen Wood noted how following the Tambora eruption, the food shortage was just enough to cause mass stress, political unrest, and violence, and that true famine and starvation occur in silence. One would hope that we have learned the lessons from the past and need not let our environment get to such a point where we are underprepared. When a major political party does not even include the issue of climate change in their platform then I get less optimistic. I embrace the technological advancements that come from our responsibility to reduce our impact on the climate and hope that we invest more in that innovation. I would rather have a methodical well planned and efficient introduction of green frustration, than be forced into unknown territory and a violent revolution.

While slow climate change is not directly comparable to a volcanic eruption, it is widespread and not going away. It is the problem that we face today. The “Year Without a Summer” lived well beyond its name, maybe we need something less mellow than “climate change” and “global warming.”

The Scientific Revolution???

While I have heard mentions of the Scientific Revolution in passing, I have never stopped to question or ponder its meaning, implications, or what it truly was. Colloquially it is popular to call almost anything a revolution nowadays. A company, like Apple for example, is often described as revolutionary in terms of its products, designs, or trends set. And maybe this is why I find the Scientific Revolution hard to understand at first glance. This lecture helped me understand what the Scientific Revolution was, and that our modern use of the word “revolution” is rooted back in the Scientific Revolution. As Professor Dan Cohen concluded: The most revolutionary part of the Scientific Revolution is that we now use the word “revolution” as a metaphor. For instance, the “mobile revolution”, which describes a series of inventions and innovations (rather than a violent change of power or politics), has allowed me to type this up!

The change in usage and meaning of words over time adds to the ambiguity of understanding the Scientific Revolution (or indeed many other things in the past!). From given name alone, it is impossible to interpret the significance or context of the Scientific Revolution. In its current and least potent form, a “revolution” can be something as simple as any notable change. However, from my involvement in science classes, both before and at Colby, it is clear that my experience is unlike that of a scientist (whatever that may mean across time) four or five centuries ago. So something did happen. Maybe what happened led to the great advances of science mentioned so often in modern physics. It seemed like almost every day during my modern physics classes we were covering material and scientists that had earned Nobel prizes in their time. Furthermore, they built off of and improved upon Newton’s and others’ work closer to the time of the Scientific Revolution. So really it was a revolution in our way of thinking, and the way we do science? As I have gathered, that is one interpretation.

The Scientific Revolution may not be described as change happening at the pace one might expect from a revolution, or with the brand new findings that would be anticipated. However, across the wider scale of science in humanity, not just Eurocentric science history, it seems like in the time of the Scientific Revolution up until now that there have been massive advances in science, worthy of the designation “revolution.” At this pace – with big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning no longer on the horizon but here already – it is doubtful that we will recognize the science of the future. It would be fascinating to see what our period in time will be renamed as, and would we find it suitable?  

I conclude, from my relatively limited knowledge on the subject, that using the word “revolution” in the title “the Scientific Revolution” is at the very least appropriate by the standard to which we use “revolution” today.