Think Piece

Laboratory Life: Juri Lotman on Scientific Revolutions

by primary editor Isabel Jacobs

By Isabel Jacobs

In the final years of his life, Russian-Estonian semiotician, literary scholar, and cultural historian Juri Lotman became obsessed with explosive processes. Outside his window at the University of Tartu, Lotman saw the old order crumbling. In 1991, the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, clearing the way for a new reality. This radical geopolitical shift—too soon fossilized as the “end of history”—was chaotic and, at least in its entirety, unpredictable. On 28 February 2022, four days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Estonia celebrated the centenary of its most famous cultural theorist. In this piece, I explore an aspect of the late Lotman’s corpus that is still little known: his analysis of scientific revolutions and their explosive socio-political aftermath. One of his main points is that scientific revolutions are radical semiotic transformations that instantaneously affect human life. At the example of Renaissance science and society, Lotman argues that the impact of scientific revolutions is both paradoxical and catastrophic.

From the mid-1980s onwards, explosion became a leitmotif in Lotman’s writings, such as Culture and Explosion (1992) and the posthumous The Unpredictable Workings of Culture (2013). His semiotic framework, bridging literary studies, linguistics, and intellectual history, began to increasingly focus on how explosive processes transform society. Unpredictable shifts are also the motor in his analysis of scientific revolutions in “Technological progress as a problem in the study of culture” (Tekhnicheskii progress kak kul’torologicheskaia problema; 1988). The article develops a new understanding of scientific revolutions as material-semiotic shifts. He claims that scientific revolutions not only mark abrupt changes in the system of scientific ideas but also profoundly transform people’s way of life. Asserting the entanglement of science and society, he insists that all scientific progress has an irrevocable impact on human reality. To understand Lotman’s point, it is worth recalling the main object of his criticism: American philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn’s argument in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

In his famous book, Kuhn stated that the history of science was not cumulative and gradual but punctuated by radical shifts which he called paradigm shifts. Where normal science produces facts that complement the current worldview, radical science overthrows this worldview as a whole, instigating a paradigm shift. While this shift might transform the way we perceive the world, Kuhn claims that it does not change reality as such. Let us look at his argument in more depth:

Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well. Of course, nothing of quite that sort does occur: there is no geographical transplantation; outside the laboratory everyday affairs usually continue as before. (Kuhn 111)

Regularly accused of anti-realism and relativism by his critics, Kuhn declares here a stable reality, strangely untouched by scientific revolutions. Outside the laboratory, Kuhn insists, affairs go on as normal. Scientists may look at what seems like a new planet, and yet, not geography but their gaze changed. It is precisely this gulf between laboratory and world that initiates Lotman’s criticism of scientific progress. Responding to Kuhn, he argues:

Less than thirty years have passed, but nowadays hardly anybody would agree with [Kuhn’s] placid evaluation. There are, of course, constant changes in science and technology which produce a slow accumulation of the material for future explosions echoing far beyond the walls of laboratories and studies. Is it possible to say that after the invention of paper and gunpowder or the scientific application of electricity, things go on as usual? (Lotman 781)

And is it not even less possible to say that regarding the radical technological transformations we are living through now? For Lotman, these shifts have “such a momentous character that it is literally impossible to name an aspect of human history they did not touch.” Moreover, he continues, “these changes had a profound impact on our planet as part of the universe and, therefore, far exceeded the closed world of scientific laboratories” (782). In Lotman’s holistic worldview, human life, the planet and scientific activity are entangled; as he repeatedly states, their entwinement becomes particularly tangible in times of crisis. Against Kuhn, he argues that the world after a scientific revolution is not only a strange and unpredictable place, but it has also not existed before. Post-revolutionary reality is made of “things never seen before and thoughts never thought,” as Alexandre Koyré has put it.

Lotman’s position on the laboratory shares some affinity with French philosopher Bruno Latour’s sociology of science. In Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), Latour and Steve Woolgar argued that the social and scientific realms, if not existing on the same plane, interact with each other. Scientific facts are the result of social activity, circumscribed by the interplay between conventions and material processes. As such, the laboratory is “a system of literary inscription,” embodying “its own history of construction” (Latour and Woolgar 105). Without reducing science to social activity, Lotman’s laboratory is such a system of semiotic inscriptions. In his view, lab and world conjoin in the semiosphere, a space of translation, dialogue, and the production of new information. 

Lotman argues in “On the Semiosphere”  (1984) that the boundaries at the semiosphere are permeable, filtering mechanisms that allow for material-semiotic interactions. Accordingly, the boundary between society and science “represents a multiplicity of points, belonging simultaneously to both the internal and external space.” The semiotic border is “represented by the sum of bilingual translatable ‘filters’, passing through which the text is translated into another language (or languages), situated outside the given semiosphere” (Lotman 208f.). I will now look at some of these processes of translation—and mistranslation—between science and society while assessing Lotman’s criticism of scientific revolutions.

We have seen that his position on how science impacts reality is significantly more far-reaching than Kuhn’s. In some regard, it resonates with Latour’s sociology of science. Unlike Kuhn, Lotman challenges the very fact that objective reality exists independently from processes of semiotization. Similar to Koyré in his 1957 lectures From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, he claims that Galileo, thanks to the telescope, did not only see a familiar world through new eyes, but discovered a world that no human eye has ever seen before. Lotman goes as far to say that Galileo and Copernicus “practically ousted God from the universe” (790).

The result of Galileo’s discoveries, however, is for Lotman less utopian than for Koyré. He claims that the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not spark social progress but evoked fear of paganism. Eventually, scientific innovations fueled the persecution of witchcraft. Developing a skeptical stance towards progress, Lotman focuses on the dialectics of scientific revolutions and mass psychology. The age of Renaissance is portrayed far from being enlightened:

[T]he development of science and technology, the growth of all branches of knowledge did not reduce rather increased the irrational unforeseeability of life (thus the Renaissance dream of rational utopia). Instead of eliminating chance scientific and technological revolution created a new reality perceived by contemporaries as chaotic and unpredictable (787).

In their attempt to eliminate chance and create a transparent world based on reason, Renaissance science paradoxically paved the way for a reality that people perceived as uncanny. Lotman wonderfully describes how people’s lives in this rapidly changing world were irrevocably transformed. The masses perceived scientists and engineers as “magicians” who moved bell towers, excavated mountains, and changed the course of rivers. Witnessing how their familiar world was turned upside down, people experienced a loss of “basic social, moral, and religious values, thus causing [them] to feel uncertainty, disorientation, apprehension and fear” (788). In short, affairs outside the laboratory did not continue as usual. Instead, throughout Western Europe, racial persecutions broke out. In Lotman’s words: “When life loses its foundations, everybody who dresses, thinks, or prays differently sparks fear” (790).

This fear, he argues, produced a “snowball effect” that induces “parallel processes of redistribution of wealth and of rapid turnover in positions of authority” (791). What united all these explosions was “the fear of extremes, of destabilizing deviations from the norm” (793). This paranoia of extremes strikingly mirrors modern science’s attempt at mathematical approximation. For Lotman, the social upheavals following scientific progress were entirely unforeseen. Science had produced its own monsters:

Paradoxically, technological development, instead of weakening fear, stimulated it. Many scholars have noted the role of printing in the epidemic of satanism. It is precisely the printer who created the “boom” of books on witchcraft that would have been impossible in the Middle Ages. […] The eighteenth-century man felt himself to have awakened from a deep and heavy slumber (see Goya’s picture The Sleep of Reason). This loss of a psychological connection with the recent past led to the tendency to dissociate from it temporally by pushing it farther back in time. Thus, the cultural myth of the Enlightenment attributed religious wars and witch-hunts to the early Middle Ages (789f.).

Similar to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Lotman seeks to deconstruct the Enlightenment myth of progress. He does so by emphasizing that scientific revolutions are always “intertwined with semiotic revolutions that profoundly transform the whole system of sociocultural semiotics” (795). Hence, after a revolution, scientific facts are immediately embodied within social relations. Revolution turns the forms of life upside down, setting in motion unpredictable transformations:

Scientific progress may be the background for psychological regression, potentially leading to uncontrollable consequences. Science increases the possibilities of prediction, but reality may turn out to be completely unpredictable (795).

In the aftermath of a revolution, new things with a heightened mythological potential emerge. For their very unpredictability, Lotman urges us to receive scientific revolutions with precaution rather than enthusiasm. While progress might suggest a movement forward, the example of Renaissance culture proves that science might in fact revive “archaic cultural and psychological models.” I argue that, within Lotman’s paradigm, the unpredictable side-effects of science can be explained through mistranslations—or a lack of translatability—at the boundary between science and the sphere of life. Scientific revolutions create unpredictable events because they are what the late Lotman calls “explosive processes”; unforeseeable events that have yet to be translated into new conceptual paradigms. While he seems to take a conservative stance towards technology here, I would like to conclude my brief survey with an outlook of how to read Lotman against himself.

Pointing to the issue of translatability, he pays particular attention to how scientific revolutions transform language. Renaissance science, as a semiotic revolution, destroyed the traditional role of language in society. The word, he writes, “became as cunning as politics, individually significant. Its coupling with reality often followed the rule of concealing, rather than revealing, meaning” (797). Ordinary speech became comprehensible in multiple ways, each relative to the speaker’s context and intentions. The masses therefore lost faith in the meaning of words, falling prey to demagoguery and dogma. Lotman’s view of his own time, the late 1980s, is similarly dystopian; not without paranoia, he declares that commercial TV and cinema cultivate a myth of mass consciousness that enable authorities to exert control and denunciation. 

Referring to Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Lotman sides with the Egyptian king Thamus that the main effects of the discovery of writing are forgetfulness and the harmful loss of memorial techniques (789). Another interpretation of the same section in Phaedrus might open Lotman’s text towards a more ambiguous reading. In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Jacques Derrida highlights the ambivalence of the Greek term pharmakon which means both remedy and poison, depending on its contextual use. Equally, writing as pharmakon radically opens up unpredictable processes of difference. Returning to Lotman, with Derrida in mind, I hence suggest that scientific revolutions are not as apocalyptic as he envisioned. Potentially both remedy and poison, revolutions are in an oscillating state of—to use Derrida’s words—“unstable ambivalence” (Derrida 436). 

In the posthumously published text “Explosive Processes,” Lotman acknowledges precisely this ambiguity of scientific revolutions. Here, radicalizing his previous argument, he states that in a process of explosive transformation every thinkable event can occur. Hence, the possible outcomes of scientific revolutions are inexhaustible. In the very instant of revolution, “one becomes conscious of another reality, a moment of dislocation, and of the reinterpretation of memory” (Lotman 69). At the brink of a scientific revolution, history reveals itself as a discontinuous, radically open movement. It is this instant when everyday affairs cease to continue—and the world outside the laboratory becomes a different planet.

Isabel Jacobs is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her research explores the work of Alexandre Kojève from a transnational perspective. Her interests include Soviet and Russian émigré philosophy, German-Jewish thought, global intellectual history, cinema, and aesthetics. She received a M.A. in Russian and East European Literature and Culture from UCL SSEES and a B.A. in Philosophy and Slavic Studies from Heidelberg University. 

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, “The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43),” from Los Caprichos, ca. 1799. Public Domain.

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