Tag: Latour

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.

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.