Category: November 29 (Page 2 of 3)

The Paradox of Revolution

When you invoke”revolution” in the American psyche what comes to mind is clearly the American Revolution between 1765 and 1783. The American Revolution, to us, was the cleanest, universally ordained, and most just revolution this world has ever seen. Through historical teachings and our nationalist paradigm, our founding fathers were just in their actions and clean in their revolution. However, to me, this is misleading. All revolutions are, at its basic core, the violent overthrow of political authority in charge. Whether violence is seen as a means to an end or seen as illegitimate as means, true revolution changes structure and in order to change structure violence need to be dealt. This is the basic requirement when facing military force or police force. With this in mind we should start to look at our revolution as a violent period in American history where people were killed for the overthrow of the political authority in charge. Further, in this violent period Revolutions inherently produce categories of experience and separation for those enacting revolution, having revolution enacted upon them, and the difference in resulting conditions following a revolution.

In the essence of this thinking, Professor Peterson uses revolution and the basic results of revolution as a large part of his argument. To him the categories of experience and separation that result from a revolution are important in understanding what constitutes something as wholly revolutionary because for some even in the process of revolutions the effects of revolution are not general. To this end, when thinking about the American revolution or the revolutions of our modern era, we must think about the ways political upheaval is really revolutionary or not in the ways they actually changed condition for the majority or shifted power from one minority to another.

We must look at revolutions in this critical light for various reasons, but one in particular-the power of modernity and the clean record of historical generalizations. Specifically, the power of nationalism in talking about these revolutions shouldn’t be understated. When nations discuss revolutions they create fallacies of universal cooperation, true democracy, and egalitarian political desire. However, when looking at the American revolution in particular you must analyze WHO creates this type of history and for what reason. Because when looking at political fact, we must not forget the ways that poor farmers, slaves, and Native Americans were kept out of the “revolutionary” acts and the negotiating table following the “revolution”. So all of these ideals and historical generalizations that are made can only be seen as false, but to what end? The power of memory cannot be understated, in modern times revolutions are written off and started through the evocation of history. Looking to the American Revolution, looking to the French Revolution, etc. Revolutions are never as pure or universal as stated, they have underlying categories of separation and exclusivity.


Whose America? Revolution to Whom?

In our penultimate lecture, Professor Keith Peterson, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Colby, spoke on modernity and feminist philosophy. Although at times dense, and somewhat intimidating due to (maybe my poor understanding of philosophy) the complexity of his work, Professor Peterson addressed an issue that had yet to truly be brought up in the previous ten weeks – why do we want to be revolutionary, if at all?

Professor Peterson specifies that differentiating oneself qualifies as being revolutionary, and that often, modern revolutions create cultural divides. However, he also noted that, why are we able to credit our work as “revolutionary?” (Our, being the preceding Americans and global citizens). Professor Peterson raises an important question that we have not really explored, and that often goes unnoticed in our daily lives and in discussion? What justifies past Revolutions as actually being revolutionary, and does it matter whether or not they were revolutionary? This discussion is quite relevant and reminiscent to an ongoing conversation, related to President Trump. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” received backlash (for a slew of reasons, but I’ll only focus on two) throughout his campaign, for why is America not great now? American patriots and “country lovers” fought this statement, for it assumes that the people existing in it currently do not make it great. However, the greater backlash, particularly from communities who did not support President-elect Trump, resulted from the claim that “America was never great.” While of course extremely subjective, this claim falls in line with Professor Peterson’s question of whether or not “revolutions” in the past were even revolutionary? Under whose authority can we deem past revolutions as revolutions, and from whose perspective was America great? In the American revolution, European settlers arrived in the United States, free from British rule and able to create their own nation! How glorious! However, how can we immediately forget the native populations that were displaced, wronged, and even killed in the process? Is it likely these populations existing today excitingly and willfully refer to this period as “The Great American Revolution” as it is so popularly romanticized today? Similarly, do minority groups of African Americans, gays, Jews, and a number of others look to previous times in supposedly prosperous America (think late 1800’s, mid 1900’s) as America being a “great” nation? To whom was America great, and does this phrase truly deserve its place in our society today? Professor Peterson’s lecture was so valuable because it gave a perspective revolving around modernity, one that is rarely placed on the word “revolution.” This modern perspective is so important as it is impossible to understand 1776 America the same way as 2016 America, with completely different populations, standards, and even shifting values. Whose America is it, and where does revolution fit in? This is of course a question with an ever-changing answer, one that will really never have a specific answer due to varying perspectives. However, it is a question we must keep in mind when understanding revolution and subjectivity.

The Nature of Revolution

Keith Peterson introduced an entirely new side of the revolutions theme when he referenced Bruno Latour’s idea that humanity may never have been revolutionary. This concept is a blow to humanity’s collective ego, as much of the supposed superiority of man rests on this idea that humans are able to make revolutionary changes in order to improve their society while other species do not have the capacity to do so. However, Peterson also explained the difference between naturalism and sociology, which seems to suggest that humans are much more closely connected to the rest of nature than we often remember.

Peterson explained that sociology is the concept that society is a microcosm of nature, and explains nature as a whole, while naturalism is the idea that nature explains society. This topic warrants more discussion, as it is important to understand, or at least debate about, whether society reflects nature, or nature influences society and makes it the way it is. This connects to the common argument of nature vs. nurture. Do beings behave the way they do because of their inherent instincts, or because society has conditioned them to do so and thus shaped their nature? This may aid in explaining whether or not humans have ever been revolutionary.

Nature has never been considered revolutionary in itself. The constant changes undergone by the natural world have been explained by science, a result of the natural progression of evolution. Evolution is not considered a revolution, but a result of natural selection and genetics, processes that are no longer shocking or novel because they have been explained so thoroughly and become so widely accepted in the scientific community. So, if the principle of naturalism is true and society is simply another facet of nature, than changes that society endures are a natural progression similar to the evolution of the natural world. Therefore, society as explained by nature is not revolutionary, because change is simply a natural process that sustains life.

However, if the principle of sociology is more correct, and nature can be explained more thoroughly by its reflection in society, perhaps society is revolutionary. The way change manifests itself in society may be a reflection of the nature of change as a whole. Based on precedent, it seems the the overlying trend is that change is usually difficult to accept by society, often causing discontent or uproar because it represents such a strong diversion from the norm. This suggests, then, that perhaps this change is not a natural process, because if it was it would be more easily integrated into life.  If society explains nature, society seems to be explaining that change is unnatural and unusual, and thus revolutionary.

All of this rests, however, on how one defines revolution. If revolution is defined as a change or new development that is so shocking and novel that it is difficult to accept, then naturalism would suggest that humanity is not revolutionary while sociology would suggest that humans are. However, if revolution is defined, perhaps, not by the reaction to a new idea but to the nature of the idea itself, it is more difficult to group revolutions into one category.


Are we Revolutionary?

I have to admit that Keith Peterson’s talk regarding Bruno Latour’s notion that being ‘revolutionary’ is a myth of modernity threw me for a bit of a loop. I found his conclusions to be somewhat thought provoking, and the way that he explains Latour’s philosophies were a good challenge for me to wrap my head around, given that I have very little philosophical education besides my W1 course freshman year. Perhaps it is simply the history major side of me that demands more evidence to back up claims, but overall I found Latour’s arguments to be overly authoritative and opinionated, with little evidence to back them up. Peterson’s use of visual aids to help explain the philosophical schools of thought at play in the sphere of Latour’s subject matter were interesting, but ultimately left me a bit bewildered, with not enough time to grasp the full implications of Latour’s point of view, given that the lectures in this course are just around one hour long. Ultimately, while I think Peterson did a good job explaining Latour’s philosophies, I know I am not alone in saying that the subject matter was a bit too esoteric to fully grasp in the span of one hour with no background context beforehand.
I suppose, given the subject of this particular lecture, now would be an appropriate time to reflect on this course. Since there was no course evaluation that I could voice my opinions on, I think a good question to ask would be “Is ST 132 revolutionary?” Overall, my personal opinion would be to answer with “No”. As a student, this course in my opinion did not add anything revolutionary to my educational experience at Colby. For only one credit hour, a once-a-week lecture with a requirement of 10 500-word reflections, for a total of 5,000 words, is far too much work for a class that only gives a single credit hour. I had to take this course concurrently with ST 215 in order to take ST 215, but I did not find that this lecture series significantly aided my understanding of ST 215. If only attendance was required, I would have adopted a much more sympathetic attitude towards this lecture series, but I often found myself dreading the reflection submissions, and the scheduling of the lectures often awkwardly interrupted the studying schedules of both myself and my friends who took the class, especially during midterms and the last few weeks of classes. Additionally, I got the sense that Colby wanted us to take this course because it looks good on their promotional material. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was a photographer present in every lecture in addition to the televisions in Miller street showing off the course in a spot where pretty much every tour group passes by. Ultimately, while I appreciated the lecturers on an individual basis, I think that the course in general sacrificed too much student time in order to allow the administration to point at this course and claim “Hey look, aren’t we such revolutionaries?”

Knowledge: What is it?

Once again, the idea of being “modern” is torn apart by means of simple logic.  Just as Schnapp discussed the paradox within “modern monuments”, portraying how once something exists, it is inherently part of history and a relic of the past, Professor Peterson expresses how because we aren’t modern, we can’t possibly be revolutionary.  In explaining his interpretation of being revolutionary, Peterson compares the varying definitions of the information required to cause a revolution or be revolutionary: knowledge.  From a sociologist’s point of view, knowledge is defined as whatever a community believes in, while scientists see knowledge throughout analysis of experiments and tests.  Together, both of these definitions form a “dualistic concept of knowledge”.  It’s important to understand that while neither definition is by itself a correct and holistic representation of what “knowledge” is, the dualistic concept allows knowledge to be malleable and representative of the population as a whole.  Because scientists can prove and disprove certain theories and concepts by collecting data and analyzing trends, samples, and observations, current knowledge that may have existed in society can now be altered and redistributed in its correct form (reflective of new discovery).  With this, knowledge is not concrete, but constantly changing as discoveries are made; however, it’s imperative to also note that knowledge can’t exist without the social aspect.  Even if scientists are making discoveries, the only way these findings can translate into community knowledge is if people are made aware of them.  If discoveries are kept secret and limited to only a small amount of the population, this is not truly knowledge because the community as a whole does not know or believe in this given concept.  Knowledge within a population is obtained only throughout vocalization and publications of these findings.


Although not directly related to Prof. Peterson’s talk, it’s interesting to argue whether or not blatantly wrong information, despite being accepted by the general public, is in fact “knowledge”.  Is knowledge knowing something, or knowing something that is correct and proven?  The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines knowledge as “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education”.  According to the definition of knowledge, knowledge can be obtained by education, even if that education is not giving correct information, while a fact is defined as something that is proven indisputable.  An excellent example of how this unstable definition of knowledge took place in America this year was during the presidential campaign.  Although blatantly wrong, both democrats and republicans have been overcome with the “fake news” that has littered social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for months.  Although the information portrayed was often not correct, many misleading posts were able to manipulate many citizens into believing certain things that about candidates.  From claims that the FBI agent investigating Clinton’s alleged email scandal was found dead, to blatant lies told during presidential debates, bogus stories coined as “knowledge” played a role in the election.  Are these false stories truly knowledge?  Is knowledge something that is true in nature or true to the individual thinker?

We Have Never Been Revolutionary?

What if the very idea of being revolutionary was a false, disillusioning ideal? That is what Keith Peterson explored through the work of science and technology studies theorist Bruno Latour, a philosopher and sociologist by trade. Peterson focused mainly on Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern, Peterson posed and answered questions about it. A whole field of study in philosophy focuses on the true meaning of words and how certain words that are used too frequently can really diminish their true meaning. In Latour’s book he asks the question, “what if we have never been modern?”, a very interesting and provocative question.

Perhaps part of this narrative that we have never been modern or revolutionary is this idea that those two words (modern and revolution) have been used too much in the world, but more egregiously in the west. In television commercials and in science, the word “revolution” is used almost too frequently to describe products and discoveries. For example, I know I’ve heard “A revolution in toothpaste” in a dental care company’s commercial before when they’re only describing a small change. “Modern” is usually used to place more value on whatever entity it is describing. Countries describe themselves as “modern” or “modernizing” when they want to say they are moving up in the world. Should being “modern” necessarily place more value on countries or areas of the world than less “modern” countries? Why is “modernizing” usually always considered a “good” thing? Latour asks this in his book when he questions why nature and culture have drifted so far apart in the “modernist” movement. He argues that modernity’s split between culture and nature is not actually how it is.

But back to the question I posed earlier, should more value be placed on more modern countries? Or is a less “modern” civilization better? What exactly constitutes “modernity”? In certain measures, “modernity” is a great thing. In the west, modern medicine has eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox, malaria, polio, and typhoid fever. As medicine has “modernized” people live longer, healthier lives. In less developed places in the world, malaria and typhoid fever, among other diseases, devastates populations and creates less quality of life. However, it seems nowadays that “modernizing” comes with social and cultural consequences in which many people nowadays cannot stay from electronic devices like computers, smart phones, tablets, televisions and more. Modernized countries have seen their time spent outside reduced considerably in recent years. Modernity has also come with a rise in obesity from lack of exercise and moving around, which has increased the risk of heart disease and diabetes. In the west culture has transitioned to “pop culture” in which entertainment is valued for money intake instead of culture for culture’s sake. Meaning that songs, stories, news, events, etc. are all put on for profit’s sake instead of their intrinsic value. Other “less modern” countries value their culture’s song, dance and other aspects intrinsically.

Latour seemed to be harsh of this new lifestyle of “modern” countries that has developed in recent years. “Modern” and “Revolution” are words whose connotations can mean different things to people in different contexts.

Do We Really Want to be Revolutionary?

Colby’s Professor Kieth Peterson contributed a very unique and interesting perspective to what we already covered in the Continuing Revolutions talks this semester. The idea that “We Have Never Been Revolutionary” was definitely a fairly new one after looking at the different avenues that we have considered revolutionary this semester from scientific to social development. Although I found myself slightly lost, at certain times, in Professor Peterson’s substantial philosophical knowledge and analysis, I thought he made a lot of very interesting challenges to the concept of being revolutionary. The part of his lecture that stuck out the most to me was the point he made about the cultural aspects of being revolutionary. He made the point that, by definition, being revolutionary is considering yourself to be different, and better, than those who came before you. Specifically with westerners and expansion in America, it was definitely the case that westerners saw themselves as superior to the Native Americans, and even other settlers, in the country before them. The european settlers did completely go against and redefine the social institutions in place at that time, but is this mistreatment of others really something we want to consider revolutionary? How revolutionary is it to have a country like the United States resting on a foundation of violence and dominating of others?

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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.


Six Degrees

Networks as a notion of the world has always existed, but it has become especially heightened with digital networks. Bruno Latour found in networks a “powerful way of rephrasing basic issues of social theory, epistemology, and philosophy”. To define an entity in actor-network theory, one must define its attributes, its network. All the attributes are necessary for any self-contained entity to exist. Latour’s networks also get rid of nature, society, power, and any other notions that were able to exert some sort of control over the development of science.

Joi Ito has a similar approach to science, the anti disciplinary approach. Ito imagines the whole of science as a huge piece of paper in which dots represent the different disciplines and the blank space between them represents “antidisciplines.” In approaching more difficult problems, we should be focusing more in a united science rather than a “mosaic of different disciplines.”


Combining Latour’s networks with Ito’s antidisciplines, we get a model that looks like the following:


What I think is interesting is: if science is a network that consists of nodes and edges, what would it be immersed in? What would the blank space represent? Perhaps the combination of both models allows for a unified conception of science. The differentiation between each of the points implies a connection can still be drawn if it’s not there already.

This is revelatory of the kind of science we will be doing in the future. We will no longer need that many specialists, but synthesists who can draw connections between unlikely concepts. This may seem new in this context, but many science fiction authors have proposed future worlds with people of this character. William Gibson, for instance, introduces the idea of a “cool hunter” in his novel Pattern Recognition. A cool hunter can identify trends before they become popular. Brian Aldiss introduces the “seeker” in An Appearance of Life. A seeker has a combination of a “serendipity factor” and training in other areas. 

In other words, I put two and two together in situations where other people were not thinking about addition. I connected. I made wholes greater than parts. Mine was an invaluable profession in a cosmos increasingly full of parts.

  • Brian Aldiss, An Appearance of Life

We won’t have to worry about specifics and generating information because we are already doing that. We will need to learn how to read large amounts of data and identify the unlikely connections between the concepts.

We are constantly revolutionary

Kieth Peterson’s lecture on Bruno Latour’s anti-revolutionary claim has several flaws. A significant flaw in Peterson’s research is that the core few writings he based most of his work on are French. Philosophy is an important discipline in French culture and French philosophers are given a celebrity status in French culture. However, the French think much differently than Americans in the US. I understand Latour’s use of the word Westerners to be broader than Americans, but he seemed to be making grave implications about Americans. Latour’s claim that Westerner’s have never been modern is false. Modernity is a state of time, but not a specific date(s) in time. It is the present to Westerners. Modernity is not specifically 1990 to 2020. It is constantly with us because we are constantly changing. We are in a state of modernity as long as we are recognizing flaws. Flaws are recognized every day in social, economic, political, institutional, etc. systems. We are in modern times because we recognize (specifically speaking in the US here) that all people should vote, women are equal to men, vaccines are important, improve weather technology to try to warn people ahead of time of bad weather, etc. These advancements are not what make us modern, but the fact that we are making advancements. Revolutions don’t necessarily reflect modernity, but one that does was the scientific revolution. It changed the though process and approach to science that has inspired today’s science. We draw from the past, but as long as we are recognizing it is the past and continue to advance, then we are modern.

Peterson also made the remark that Westerners are not tribal but others still are. How can we not be tribal, but also not be modern? It is considered that each culture to have experienced a time of tribal, so if we are not tribal anymore then we must have advanced in some manner. If we have advanced then we are modern. Therefore, yes we are modern and are not tribal. However, others are not tribal just because we are modern. Modernity depends on the state of the society. We could be more advanced than another society, but we are not more modern as that is a state of being advanced. If a society is more advanced than a different society, that does not mean the other society is tribal solely because it is less advanced. That society could be modern for that society. Without tracking the progress and gauging the current state of the society, can one only conclude if it is tribal or modern. If we are in a state of modernity, then we are revolutionary. Not every aspect about is constantly revolutionary, but for us to be modern we are advancing in some way,  which means we as a society is constantly revolutionary for us to be in a state of modernity.


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