Re: [xmca] Vygotsky's Historicism and Language Play

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Sun Apr 13 2008 - 16:56:59 PDT

Dear Carol,
  I see you have your bite back! Actually, I'm not so sure we're not supposed to get our teeth into this one. Get a load of this:
  "...Chomsky and his fellow transformational linguists take a view of cognition roughly consistent with that proposed by Bruner and Nesser. (?) They assert that the cognitive processes of the speaker must in some sense be as complex as the language he speaks." (Cole, Gay, Glick and Sharp, 1971: 20).
  See, one of the great and enduring advantages of being a nobody (and one of the less enduring advantages of being young) is that nobody digs up stuff you and your colleagues wrote hundred years ago to throw in your face. Happy birthday, Mike!
  Now, imagine a three year old who is trying to persuade her recalcitrant mother to buy her a plastic pink elephant. Perhaps the mother thinks its cheap plastic, made in China, the color's not right, it has sharp tusks that might hurt the child, it's too small and might get swallowed, it's too large and might be used as a weapon in a quarrel with a sibling, too expensive, etc. But the child simply goes on saying "I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna..." refuting every argument quite eloquently with cries, threats and screams.
  If we write down the discourse (which can go on for HOURS) we find immensely complex language (and not just on the mother's side). But it's easy to imagine that the cognitive processes of the child are fairly simple and homogenous, and she proceeds through the discourse one step at a time, like an ant walking along the beach, or the monkey king going through the celestial orchard (or, as my mother in law always says, a bear through a cornfield; for some reason the bears in China like raw corn-on-the-cob.)
  This kind of complexity (which is inter-mental, and which I will call DISCOURSE comlexity as opposed to more intra-mental TEXT complexity) is hardly limited to children. LSV spends a lot of his Hamlet chapter (in Psychology of Art) justifying Tolstoy's view of Hamlet: it is TRUE that Shakespeare does not establish a cohesive story, and that Hamlet has no consistent character, and that the "tragedy" itself cannot answer the simplest question satisfied by any coherent text, namely "Who is saying what to whom, how and why?"
  It's not just that Shakespeare is a voice from an earlier time with lower (moral and aesthetic) standards (though that is a fraction of the story, or rather it's part of the fractured quality of Hamlet's story). It's that Tolstoy is judging a great poet by the standards of a great novelist. I think that any truly cultural historical theory has to include a literary theory, if only because so much of our historical evidence about language is literature. I also think it has to be able to explain why people first used verse to tell stories and then developed a prosaics.
  In English, this means explaining how "blank verse" (pioneered by Shakespeare and then Milton) replace ballads and was in turn replaced by novels. (In Arabic, it means explaining how the rhymed and rhythmic prose of the Quran replaced a charming set of sixth century love ditties and became the basis of all written and then spoken narrative in Arabic.)
  Nazim Hikmet, the twentieth century Turkish poet (and communist) who carried out a similar transformation in Turkish, argued that rhyme was a mere device used by literate primitives because they kept forgetting the next line. That's not ALL there is to it, though.
  Here's Elizabeth Cary, writing shortly after Shakespeare's death. Salome is explaining to her husband Constabarus why she means to divorce him. While you are reading this, imagine Tolstoy writing up a good divorce (Pierre and Helen, or Anna and Karenin).
  Salom. I meane not to be led by president,
My will shall be to me in stead of Law.
      Const. I feare me much you will too late repent,
That you have ever liv'd so void of awe:
This is Silleus love that makes you thus
Reverse all order: you must next be his.
But if my thoughts aright the cause discusse,
In winning you, he gaines no lasting blisse,
I was Silleus, and not long agoe
Josephus then was Constabarus now:
When you became my friend you prov'd his foe,
As now for him you breake to me your vowd.
  Look at the last two lines. It's GRAMMATICAL complexity rather than discourse complexity, of course. But precisely for that reason, it creates meter. The use of many unstressed functors in English creates rhythm, and this is used in blank verse in stead of rhyme.
  Just as Shakespeare (but not Carey) sacrificed rhyme to rhythm in order to develop grammatical complexity, Tolstoy would sacrifice BOTH rhyme and rhythm to consistency, coherence and cohesion. This is what gives him conceptual complexity and psychological depth; this is what allows him to show the psychological processes and highlight unseen emotions and conflicting ideas when he gives us Helen divorcing Pierre or Anna divorcing Karenin.
  I don't think this story-about-stories is one of linear progress and I don't think that the progress is in any sense culturally homogenous (any more than I believe that scientific progress is). Actually, the Chinese had psychological novels when Europeans were still playing around with various forms of the gothic. But I sure do believe it represents a form of progress, because we find that more powerful forms of discourse include previous forms but not vice versa. (The Chinese were doing better Gothic novels than the Europeans were too!)
  But of course psychological novels are modern inventions and they depend on fairly recent cultural tools (just think, the quotation mark wasn't even invented until the late eighteenth century!). And so it that, PHYLOGENETICALLY as well as ONTOGENETICALLY, we have a more powerful conceptual system growing out of a less powerful one, thanks to the development of semiotic tools out of social practices. Which means that at any one historical moment (including our own) we necessarily have cognitive processes that are far LESS powerful than the discourse that is powering (and differentially empowering) them.
  For example, if you watch Hollywood movies, you do not find psychological novels. Instead, you get an almost pure example of the "morality of the Hottentot (sic)" whereby good is when I steal a wife and bad is when someone else steals her from me (and this is ESPECIALLY true of movies set in the future, e.g. "Terminator", "Matrix", etc.).
  If you listen to Korean pop music, you find that the rhyme and rhythm (let alone conceptual complexity and psychological depth) tend to be sacrificed too, but the sacrifice is generally done for the sake of howling and/or panting, depending on whether the singer is male or female. In both these cases we see cognitive processes that are less powerful and less aware than the discourse that is driving them (which is actually a fairly sophisticated one, economically if not artistically).
  Yet there are currents in the OTHER direction as well. Take a look at this:
  (Pay no attention to the accompanying text, non-Koreans have really no understanding of how much this video is ANTI-USA. But the papers yesterday reported on a poll that said that 34% of the ROTC cadets in the Korean army consider the US the main enemy, a higher proportion than those who consider that we are at war with North Korea. In the population as a whole, the percentage is about 70%.)
  You can see that here we've got pure movement, at first nothing but action, out of which arises a far more powerful conceptual system. Just play, of course. But play is a miracle that confounds the most learned versions of the learning paradox.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Heidi, we miss you. I didn't get your last two postings; they were empty!

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Received on Sun Apr 13 16:58 PDT 2008

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