[xmca] Some comments on Gordon's article

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at mira.net>
Date: Sat Sep 29 2007 - 05:02:33 PDT

I very much appreciate Gordon Wells' study; it goes to problems with which
I share a concern. But I am uncomfortable with some of the formulations.

The title is interesting. So far as I know, 'discoursing' is a neolog. I
guess it echoes the translation of the title of Vygotsky's famous book as
'Thinking and Speaking' rather than 'Thought and Speech'. What really is
the difference between 'work' / 'working', 'play' / 'playing', 'discourse'
/ 'discoursing'? It seems to me that the gerund form means performing the
activity, as opposed to the activity in a grammatical form which could be
taken to imply that it had some existence or substance outside of its

I gather from the use of the word in context, that 'discoursing' is
restricted to 'using linguistic resources', i.e., engaging in linguistic
interactions (talking, gesturing, writing) with other people while
participating in some common project (whether that common project is
getting to know each other, planning a research program or steering a
ship). So 'discoursing', for Gordon, does not include using other aspects
of material culture which are not normally considered 'linguistic
resources' (= reified discoursing), such as weapons, buildings, machines,
images, clothing, animals, human bodies, land, context and so on.
'Discoursing' is also distinct from the _activity_ within which the
elements of material culture are used and interpreted, otherwise it would
be meaningless to counterpose 'discoursing' to activity.

Gordon concludes:

           "that discoursing should not be considered as an activity in
           its own right but as an operation using linguistic resources
           that are variously drawn on to coconstruct the appropriate
           genre for the action that the discoursing mediates."

Gordon claims that:

           "discoursing always functions as a mediational means in
           achieving the goals of the action in which it occurs. Depending
           on the nature of the action and the object involved, the goal
           may be partly or wholly of an intermental kind, but the
           operations by which it is achieved always have a material
           embodiment, in speech and/or in acts that utilize material
           (p. 16)

So Gordon's point is that 'discoursing' is always a means not an end,
'discoursing' mediates between conditions and ends which are outside the
'discoursing'. Gordon says that operations may be construed as constituting
this or that activity through the 'discoursing' and selecting a 'genre'
however, so 'discoursing' _constitutes_ ends as well as being means to ends.

'Discourse' on the other hand, has a philosophical usage, surely the usage
implied here, with a meaning similar to that of 'institution', except that
'institution' is even more reified than 'discourse'. For example, by
performing a certain discourse (genre) the same series of operations could
be constituted as part of a university or a business or a militant training
camp or a game.

However, the domain of material culture which is deployed to constitute a
discourse is wider than linguistic elements, and no element of material
culture is meaningful outside of the system of activity within which it is
used / interpreted.

My uneasiness with Gordon's claim is connected to an apparently secondary
concern about Gordon's division of artefacts into tools and signs. So a
moment's digression on this sore point is not unwarranted. I would say that
a tool and a sign are just two paradigmatic instantiations of material
culture. Hegel expanded 'tool' to include all useful products, and words,
the 'tools of reason', he expanded to include all communicative
productions, and he added a third paradigmatic artefact, the child! C S
Peirce, went beyond these paradigmatic instances to categorise signs as
index, symbol and icon, thus subsuming 'tool' under one category of sign
and 'symbols' another. For my part, I would add to Gordon's two
paradigmatic instances a third - the human body, using the term 'material
culture' to cover all three paradigmatic instances.

_Contra_ Gordon, what distinguishes the 1st from the 2nd category (tools vs
signs) is not the material / ideal distinction - Peirce for example, was at
pains to point out that _all_ signs are material things. It is simply the
means by which the sign (symbol or tool or icon) indicates its object. I
think the introduction of a intermental / linguistic vs. material operation
distinction in the context of understanding what "discoursing" means, is
problematic. For example, the room in which an activity takes place
participates in the communication; is the room a 'linguistic resource'?

This relates to how 'discourse' is understood in other currents of
contemporary philosophy. It is certainly a weakness of poststructuralism
that CHAT ought to respond to, that the materiality of discourse is
routinely overlooked. So for example, if a poststructuralist points out
that some institution, for example, 'the academy', is constructed as
discourse, then they tend to overlook the important fact that the
_material_ culture deployed in that 'discourse', includes not just
_symbolic_ culture, but also: buildings, guns, books, land, communication
devices, money and human bodies, and that the large number of people who
act in step with that discourse is also a material fact.

To the poststructuralist, it is all discourse; in postmodern architectural
literature, buildings can be referred to as 'texts'. But there is a danger
in this literature of seeing 'discourse' as only symbolic, whereas
discourse is also connected to its object by its material properties or
connections (i.e., indexical) as well as by the dispositions of human
participants (i.e., iconic); further that discourse utilises the symbolic
and indexical elements of material culture only in and through activities
being performed by masses of people.

The idea of viewing the institutions as 'discourses' has allowed a range of
insights into how society works. CHAT is well-placed to deepen those
insights because we understand precisely that the resources mobilised to
construct discourses are material resources, whether symbolic or not. In
that context it is important that CHAT theorists maintain that broad
understanding of the material culture deployed in activity. To restrict
material culture to linguistic resources would be a mistake. It would also
be a mistake to corral communicative action and the deployment of
communicative elements of material culture generally to a mediating role,
to be solely a means, when it is also surely an end. The construction of
material culture as means to ends outside of material culture would also be
untenable. Just as easily, mundane physical actions could constitute the
means towards communicative ends.

It seems to me that Gordon's recommendation of genre theory as a resource
for understanding activity is a valuable insight and worth taking up. I am
also in agreement with Gordon that talking cannot normally be taken as an
activity in itself, and I agree with Gordon that the dichotomy between
ancillary and constitutive discourse cannot be maintained. But I do have
some concerns. I am not sure what implication these concerns would have for
Gordon's wider research project.

Andy Blunden

At 10:47 AM 28/09/2007 -0700, you wrote:
>The article is now available in pdf file free from
>It will be there for a month.
>(This relieves you of reliability, Gordon)

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Received on Sat Sep 29 05:03 PDT 2007

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