Re: [xmca] Copernicus 2.0 [toolforthoughts]

From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke who-is-at>
Date: Sun Jun 24 2007 - 19:39:08 PDT

Tony asks for a bit more on the point I tried to
make very briefly regarding Bakhtin's notion of answerability.

The context here is the earlier discussion of
what happens to notions of individual
responsibility if we move beyond an
individualistic notion of agency to something
more system-like, where traditional causality is
superseded by a complex interdependence of
people-and-things (or the processes in which people and things participate)?

There is, it seems to me, a link between notions
of direct linear causality (one cause, one
effect; the same cause produces the same effect
predictably) and notions of individual (moral,
legal) responsibility in our culture through the
notion of agency. If conceptually and
theoretically we accept that agency must be
replaced by some more system-level or
mutual-dialogic relationships, then what happens
to "responsibility"? Personally, I don't think
the notion can survive in its traditional Western
sense. Other cultures tend much more towards
notions that we call 'collective responsibility'
(the whole family, or clan, is guilty and
punished) or even 'fatalism' (such things happen
because the universe ordains them, not because of
individual will), perhaps because their
traditions are based on an actual wisdom about
such matters, a lack of emphasis on individuals,
and less historical influence from mechanical
models of causality in their philosophical views.
However that may be, our own society has become
rather dependent for its moral and legal
traditions on its notions of causal agency and
consequent individual responsibility, so we ought
to be thinking about how to formulate the
alternative moral dimensions of a more systems
view of social-material consequentiality.

I suggested Bakhtin's notion of answerability as
a possible starting point following the
development of this idea in work by Deborah Hicks
(in MCA in 2000 or 2001). It is a dialogic notion
with a moral dimension that does not need to
depend on individual agency in the Bakhtinian
framework, particularly if we bring together, as
Hicks does, the early Bakhtin of Art &
Answerability and the later Bakhtin of the essays
in Dialogic Imagination. Answerability is
'double-voiced' in the sense that it means both
that what we say always expects or anticipates an
answer (i.e. is dialogical in B's later sense)
and that we are ourselves 'answerable' for what
we say, in dialogue with others. Imagine that
'answerable' does not mean that we are causally
responsible for what we say, because what we say
is always already part of many dialogues, and
what we say in dialogue is not solely a matter of
our own construction. It is evoked in answer to
what others are saying / have said. It emerges in
the system of discourse (and in multiple such
systems on multiple timescales), and we are never
the sole authors of our own utterances. But we
remain morally 'answerable' in the sense that
what we contribute to the universe of discourse
ought to tend to maintain or improve its moral
quality, and ought to reflect on our part a sense
of moral commitment to what we are saying (not
deliberately lying or misleading). For the early
B., this was related to the authenticity of art
as well. It was not a call for art to be
conventionally moral (ala FR Leavis, or John
Ruskin), but for the artist to have a sense of
moral commitment in his work that would be
recognized and responded to by others.

I think also of the moral dialogue in the Hindu
Bhagavad-Gita, where Arjuna feels moral revulsion
at participating in a civil war, but is told, on
divine authority, that he's missing the Big
Picture, that if he does his duty (as a member of
the warrior caste) he incurs no blame, and that
he's kidding himself if he thinks that all by
himself, without the aid of the Universe, he has
any real power to kill anyone. Stick with the
Universe, kid, he's told, and you'll do just
fine. In our modern Western cultural context this
sounds like a dangerous rationalization for the
barbarism of war, but it's also interpretable as
a kind of system-level moral argument that does
not fall for the liberal fallacy that if every
individual does right, the world will go well. In
the social and political world (and maybe in
quantum physics as well) no outcome has a single
cause, because all causal reasoning is based on
'ceteris paribus' ... all else being equal ...
which of course it never it. It is based on the
fallacy of factorization, beloved of linear
science, that we can realistically imagine
outcomes absent coupling to contexts ... or in
simpler terms, that the apparent causal efficacy
of an action only results in the observed outcome
because nothing else interfered! The best laid
plans of mice and men go oft 'aglee' precisely
because something else is always interfering.

Neither of these tacks is an answer to our
problem. They are just pointers to possible
avenues to explore. But I think such explorations
ought to be on the intellectual agenda of our
times, because the system (or as Latour has it,
the network) way of thinking is likely to become
dominant in this century, and a lot of legal and
moral principles are going to be in need of overhaul.


PS. In my book Textual Politics, there is a
chapter that tries to re-think notions of the
subject from a materialist perspective and
includes some interesting examples of where our
rather untenable notions of 'natural individuals'
break down in moral and legal theory.

At 02:55 PM 6/22/2007, you wrote:
>Mike raises here the concern I have with what
>Jay says about literacy. Of course, Jay uses
>modifiers so he's literally saying only that
>_obsolete_ literacy is obsolete -- not all
>literacy, or literacy in general -- but the rhetoric is more sweeping.
>Here's how I was thinking about the concern I think I share with Mike:
>It seems to me that Jay's world is a world where
>Rupert Murdoch wins. Without the literacy to
>write critically, as Jay does, and to read
>critical writers like Jay, we are being swept
>away in systerms that too few people are aware
>of (from any vantage point), much less able to do anything about.
>Jay suggested Bakhtin's notion of answerability
>as an alternative to what's becoming obsolete.
>Maybe I would understand better, Jay, if you
>could say a bit more about the differentiation
>that you're making here, and what you see as the
>promise of answerability. Or am I putting too much weight on that suggestion?
>On Fri, 22 Jun 2007, Mike Cole wrote:
>>Time for others to chime in if they wish, David and Katherine included.
>>My one question, Jay, is an old one, but an important one.
>>I believe that knowledge is power. So the issue of who needs/gets to learn
>>is likely to become more and more acute as the toolsforthought become more
>>and more complex.
>>On 6/22/07, Jay Lemke <> wrote:
>>>Mike takes us to an important issue, for
>>>education and for theory, when he asks whether
>>>it's really wise or safe to rely on, call them
>>>thinking-support-systems, that we don't know how
>>>to build up from earlier technologies, like
>>>algebra or writing.
>>>I wrote:
>>> >Algebra is becoming obsolete as a tool for the
>>> >purposes for which it was invented. And so, quite
>>> >possibly, is writing. Education which takes
>>> >traditional literacy and numeracy as its
>>> >fundamental goals is worse than obsolete. It is
>>> >obstructionist, an obstacle to the efforts of a
>>> >new generation to prepare itself for a new world, a new reality.
>>> >
>>> >Yes, there's a bit of hyperbole in what I just
>>> >wrote. But less than you may wish. I hope we can
>>> >talk about the fine points here on xmca.
>>>So, yes, I was making the point in an extreme
>>>form. But if we take Mike's concern seriously,
>>>then we have, first of all, the question of what
>>>knowledge for everyone? Does everyone have to
>>>know how to fall back on algebra or differential
>>>equations if their simulator goes down? do we all
>>>have to know how to repair the cars we drive or
>>>the computers we use? or how their operating
>>>systems are programmed, or even how a programming
>>>language talks to a chip?
>>>Or only some of us? Distributed cognition is,
>>>after all, not just distributed between people
>>>and things, it's distributed among people,
>>>according to the division of labor, which is as
>>>basic a principle of social organization as I
>>>know. (In fact, I think we are more united as a
>>>society by our interdependence on each others'
>>>skills and knowledge than we are by what we all
>>>So, no, not every educated person needs to know
>>>how to factor a polynomial, not even in
>>>emergencies! Beyond this level, ship navigators
>>>can realistically (sometimes?) do by hand the
>>>math to keep the ship from cracking up, but I
>>>doubt the same could be said for calculating a
>>>re-entry orbit from space, or a hyperspace jump
>>>(if we get to that), and depending on the
>>>timescales involved, probably not even
>>>replicating a simulation of a global weather
>>>model, an ecosystem management model, or, god
>>>help us, Microsoft Vista! it takes a big village
>>>of diverse specialists a LONG time to link the
>>>by-hand skills into the complex simulation
>>>environment. (Michael Roth has argued similarly
>>>that 'science literacy' has to be defined as a
>>>collective, not an individual, achievement and
>>>Latour has an interesting analysis in his book
>>>Aramis, where he considers just how complex the
>>>technology of an automated train system, or a
>>>next generation passenger jet, really is, and
>>>what it really means to "design" or "understand"
>>>such a system. It a good example of how we pass
>>>the threshold of complexity to systems in which
>>>it just no longer makes sense to imagine
>>>individual minds or even small groups of people
>>>playing any privileged role as cognizers. Many
>>>people today have the intuitive feeling that our
>>>technologies are not 'ours' anymore, that they
>>>are beyond our ability to understand and control,
>>>and that not only our computers and planes are
>>>like this, but our economies and our global
>>>environment. Yes, it's scary and uncomfortable.
>>>It's also the objective material condition of our
>>>lives today.
>>>So what to do? Smash the machine? Return to
>>>low-tech? Augment our brains so they can cope?
>>>All are, I think, old-fashioned romantic
>>>fantasies. We need to reconceptualize our place
>>>in the universe once more, as Copernicus
>>>non-geocentric model forced us to do (very
>>>slowly!) a few centuries ago. Only now it's not
>>>our place in space, in the physical universe, but
>>>in a more metaphorical 'universe' of
>>>people-with-things. We are no longer the
>>>designer-gods of humanism. We are at best the
>>>stakeholder partners (and maybe before long the
>>>junior partners) in the systems we, collectively,
>>>participate in.
>>>So how then to re-imagine? what are the new
>>>literacies and numeracies of the Age of
>>>Complexity? I think that Shaffer and Clinton are
>>>trying to reach out towards possible answers, as
>>>is Latour. More Foundationally (and Asimov was
>>>very much a romantic, look at his robots!), we do
>>>need to get beyond humanistic ontologies (what we
>>>humans see), epistemologies (ditto know), and
>>>theories of mind. Post-Cartesian views of
>>>knowing-as-embodiment-in-systems are a good step,
>>>The next step has to be what Latour calls
>>>'symmetrizing', i.e. removing the vestiges of a
>>>privileged human point of view, not just by
>>>moving up to the collective point of view, but to
>>>the system (the village?) multi-view.
>>>What I think Shaffer and Clinton are arguing is
>>>that we can't get very far with this next step
>>>unless we re-imagine systems as more active,
>>>autonomous, meaning-generating, emergent,
>>>initiating ... and not just as the stage props
>>>for our divine Agency. Since my current interest
>>>is in re-integrating feeling and emotion into our
>>>view of meaning-making, I'd want to go perhaps a
>>>step beyond their proposal, to include a notion
>>>that our feelings as well are distributed
>>> >Thanks for the economical parsing of David and Katherine's paper, Jay.
>>> >Let me pick up on just one of the issues. Perhaps others can contribute
>>> >on this or other parts of the complex puzzle.
>>> >
>>> >You wrote:
>>> >Algebra is becoming obsolete as a tool for the
>>> >purposes for which it was invented. And so, quite
>>> >possibly, is writing. Education which takes
>>> >traditional literacy and numeracy as its
>>> >fundamental goals is worse than obsolete. It is
>>> >obstructionist, an obstacle to the efforts of a
>>> >new generation to prepare itself for a new world, a new reality.
>>> >
>>> >You know the book, Foundation? A post apocolyptic world where all the
>>> >complex
>>> >technologies are still working, but the knowledge of HOW they work has
>>> >lost
>>> >or is to be found only in one place and the superstructure of
>>> >is crumbling
>>> >while its core is hidden away. and etc........ in later Asimov novels.
>>> >
>>> >You know the scene on Ed Hutchin's ship coming into San Diego harbor. The
>>> >naviation
>>> >equipment breaks and the navigators have to fall back on algebra that
>>> >had to
>>> >painfully reconstruct from years of disuse. But they did so (in a
>>> >distributed, collaborative fashion, of course). The ship did not crash.
>>> >
>>> >So without writing, without 2+2, what would it means to have education in
>>> >which
>>> >literacy (old fashioned defintion) and numeracy (old fashion defintion)
>>> >known
>>> >to no one? I am TOTALLY in favor of the use of complex computational
>>> >simulation models as a basic (dare i use the word?) tool for education. I
>>> >think David's work on creating
>>> >simulations of professional practices is terrific. But the use of such
>>> >needs, I believe,
>>> >to be combined with an understanding of the principles upon which they
>>> >based.
>>> >
>>> >We often say that development requires top down and bottom up processes
>>> >work in
>>> >synergy with each other (a version of the dialectic of everyday and
>>> >scientific concepts in
>>> >Vygotsky). Complex simulations can be a terrific medium for accomplishing
>>> >this purpose.
>>> >But to advocate a form of enculturation that depents upon technologies
>>> >no one knows how to regenerate strikes me as, minimally, risky as a
>>> >strategy for human survival.
>>> >
>>> >None of the above negates the importance of the point that we cannot
>>> >understand a system we are inside of, nor can we get a view from nowhere.
>>> >Its mediation all the
>>> >way down. But the constituents of the human system of life are not all
>>> >of the same stuff except at a level sufficiently micro that it is
>>> >to see how to reason about human life in such terms.
>>> >
>>> >mike
>>> >
>>> >On 6/21/07, Jay Lemke <> wrote:
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >>Herewith some notes on the Chosen Article:
>>> >>
>>> >>Shaffer and Clinton offer us an awkward term
>>> >>"toolforthoughts" and a profound challenge to
>>> >>find more intelligent ways of participating in
>>> >>the new world of pervasive computationally active systems.
>>> >>
>>> >>I suspect that some readers of their proposal
>>> >>will balk at its moral or humanistic revisionism,
>>> >>and others at its radical ontological and
>>> >>epistemological perspectives. I have things to
>>> >>say about both, but I think the most important
>>> >>pragmatic implication of what they are saying
>>> >>comes in their challenge to our notions of
>>> >>literacy and numeracy, and to our hopelessly outdated goals for
>>> >>
>>> >>Knowing something of the history of their
>>> >>thinking from personal contacts, I believe it
>>> >>makes sense to see the issues of new literacies
>>> >>and numeracies as the impetus that pushes their
>>> >>thinking toward its revisionist ontology, and the consequent moral
>>> >>conundrums.
>>> >>
>>> >>So let me start from the concrete and back my way down to the abstract.
>>> >>
>>> >>Imagine a world, already half-way here, of
>>> >>pervasive computationally-active systems in which
>>> >>we all live. Systems we may still call houses,
>>> >>schools, offices, but much of which will be
>>> >>"virtual" Š i.e. will be immersive participatory
>>> >>simulation environments in which are embedded
>>> >>computations 'tools' and computationally active
>>> >>'partners': artificial intelligences, of lesser
>>> >>and greater capacity, that will talk to us,
>>> >>suggest directions and options, carry out tasks,
>>> >>take initiatives, and immerse us in simulated
>>> >>spaces and places filled with perceptual
>>> >>information and motor affordances. Nor will the
>>> >>there remain clear lines between the virtual and
>>> >>the rest of the material infrastructure; they
>>> >>will blend more and more seamlessly in our experience and activity.
>>> >>
>>> >>If you play an immersive, interactive computer
>>> >>game at the frontiers of current technology (or
>>> >>get military training in such a simulated
>>> >>reality), you get a glimpse of what's coming. If
>>> >>you participate in a non-game virtual world like
>>> >>SecondLife, you can pretty easily imagine it as a
>>> >>prototype for a new kind of "school", or artists'
>>> >>collaborative, or bordello. If you talk with
>>> >>traditional mathematicians about why they hate
>>> >>computational modes of "proof", despite the fact
>>> >>that some significant results can only be
>>> >>obtained by such methods, you begin to understand
>>> >>how deep the challenge to "numeracy" runs. If you
>>> >>try to understand what kinds of "literacy" enable
>>> >>young people to make meanings across films,
>>> >>books, websites, interactive games, and active
>>> >>play with toys throughout a transmedia franchise
>>> >>like Star Wars or Harry Potter, you see how
>>> >>hopeless the old notions of literacy are.
>>> >>
>>> >>Algebra is becoming obsolete as a tool for the
>>> >>purposes for which it was invented. And so, quite
>>> >>possibly, is writing. Education which takes
>>> >>traditional literacy and numeracy as its
>>> >>fundamental goals is worse than obsolete. It is
>>> >>obstructionist, an obstacle to the efforts of a
>>> >>new generation to prepare itself for a new world, a new reality.
>>> >>
>>> >>Yes, there's a bit of hyperbole in what I just
>>> >>wrote. But less than you may wish. I hope we can
>>> >>talk about the fine points here on xmca.
>>> >>
>>> >>So what is replacing the older tools of literacy
>>> >>and numeracy? Shaffer and Clinton give a bit of a
>>> >>description, and much more could be said. I don't
>>> >>think we know just what this future will look
>>> >>like yet, but it's certainly well along in its development.
>>> >>
>>> >>What about the ontology? While not well-known,
>>> >>the notion of causality has largely dropped out
>>> >>of its central place in the physical sciences,
>>> >>from quantum theory to nonlinear complex system
>>> >>dynamics in chemistry and even biology. Causality
>>> >>is the core of our intuitions about agency, and
>>> >>the lesson from natural science (perhaps inspired
>>> >>in a roundabout way by our consciousness of
>>> >>complex computational-and-human systems) is that
>>> >>we are always in systems (and so is everything
>>> >>else), and in systems, everything is mediating
>>> >>(in various ways) the behavior of everything
>>> >>else. There are no prime movers. The implications
>>> >>for epistemology have occupied Latour and his
>>> >>critics for some time. The short answer: every
>>> >>view is a view from inside, and more complete
>>> >>views require articulations among different
>>> >>insider perspectives (from which Latour derives his version of
>>> >>
>>> >>And the morality? What should we really think of
>>> >>a morality grounded in humanism? i.e. in the
>>> >>notion that it is what makes humans different
>>> >>from all other systems (souls, intentions) that
>>> >>allows us to hold ourselves and others
>>> >>'responsible' for actions? I don't think it's a
>>> >>logic that can command much respect once we
>>> >>subject it to rigorous critique. Shaffer and
>>> >>Clinton don't mention Bakhtin and his notion of
>>> >>'answerability' in this connection, but I think
>>> >>it holds promise for getting to something better,
>>> >>something more consistent with a mutual-agency view of active systems.
>>> >>
>>> >>So what do other people think??
>>> >>
>>> >>JAY.
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >>Jay Lemke
>>> >>Professor
>>> >>University of Michigan
>>> >>School of Education
>>> >>610 East University
>>> >>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>>> >>
>>> >>Tel. 734-763-9276
>>> >>Email.
>>> >>Website. <>
>>> >>_______________________________________________
>>> >>xmca mailing list
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >>
>>> >_______________________________________________
>>> >xmca mailing list
>>> >
>>> >
>>>Educational Studies
>>>University of Michigan
>>>610 East University
>>>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>>>Ph: 734-763-9276
>>>Fax: 734-936-1606
>>xmca mailing list
>Tony Whitson
>UD School of Education
>NEWARK DE 19716
>"those who fail to reread
> are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
> -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
>xmca mailing list

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
Website. <>
xmca mailing list
Received on Sun Jun 24 19:42 PDT 2007

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