Re: [xmca] Play to Art: Experience to Insight

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jul 18 2008 - 10:12:15 PDT

Below is an attempt at a summary of the theoretical ideas of the
article, preceded by some commentary.

BTW, the article is still currently available for free at the
publisher's site,

Sometimes, when I am trying to parse the theoretical ideas in an
article, I will use a word processor and spread sheet to arrange the
material into themes to get a clearer idea of what is being said. I
did that for this article, listed below. In this message I am only
sending the themes I wrote up. I left out the original text for space
reasons (about a fifth of the original article, last I looked).

I liked a number of things about this paper. And I have lots of
questions inspired by the paper's ideas.

One thing I really liked is the way it elevates play and playlike
activity to a central role in human activity – in the use of symbols,
in language, imagination, cognition, communication and development.
“Work” and “nonwork” are not uncommonly the implied framework for
theorizing about such things, but this article explicitly shifts the
framework to “play” and “nonplay.” I find that perspective eye-
opening and inspiring.

Another is the suggestion of the "propositional act," featuring the
concept of the "TOPIC" (a joint focus), as a basic unit of meaning-
making, which can be observed at early ages, such as communication
through pointing. This strikes me as a bold addition to CHAT theory,
and deserves a serious look.

Vygotsky suggested - I may not be putting this quite right - that the
word or word-meaning is the most basic unit of meaning (would that be
true in the case of pointing a very young child toward a joint
focus?), but this proposal from Ana and Ljubica regards something
different: not just meaning, but meaning-**making**. Ana explains
this in a recent post, and argues that Vygotsky was speaking about the
word (didn't Vygotsky also speak of word-meaning?) as an basic
analytical unit in conceptual development. The idea that two people,
when they are relating, always have a common focus, probably isn't a
new discovery, but seeing "joint focus" as the basic unit of meaning-
making between two people, that is, seeing it as the simplest, most
basic, indivisible, always-present form of human meaning-making, upon
which all the rest builds, does seem to be a new and refreshing idea,
at least to me. Is it? Another question I have is how essential is
the COMMENT or the mediating or connecting act following the creation
of a joint focus to the content of this meaning-making - is this
connecting act merely a validation that the focus is joint, or does it
contain additional, essential content that should place it at the
center of the generic propositional act? I have been thinking the
joint focus is the core, but I might be missing something important.
I ask some more questions about the propositional act as a unit of
analysis in a moment.

A theme that the article returns to several times that I also like is
the dynamic of switching back and forth from play frames to reality
frames. This simple concept seems to offer real explanatory power,
such as easily describing what a metaphor is - using the elements in
an imaginary frame or chronotope to comment on a real situation. I
was impressed by the simplicity of this explanation. It also seems to
have analytical potential in situations where this switching process
plays a significant role. Has anyone invented a term for this
switching process? It seems like it deserves one. That could be a
very useful word.

The article is also fun for me because I was in the play workshop at
Seville that Ana and Ljubica describe. It is interesting to think of
the different activities we engaged in as demonstrating four kinds of
stages or moments in the development of a play TOPIC - the
"bifurcation point" when a play situation emerges out of the reality
situation, creating rules on the spot for the emerging play situation,
negotiating switches between play frames and reality frames, and
making new connections between these play experiences and our lives.
I remember having a lot of fun in that workshop.

Somehow, after all the other things we did, Ana and Ljubica got us to
divide up in teams to invent and put on 4 different enactments of some
lines from Hamlet, which was quite enriching, including making new
friends out of the collaborative "inner group" experience that
exercise offered. Will we be seeing more such workshops?

The article inspires an interesting idea for me, a reversal of
conventional thinking. It suggests to me the idea that play/
imagination activity is the actual “norm” in human interaction, and
nonplay/reality-based activity is really just a special, derivative
form of playing. Play (using imagination), in this sense, would be
more complex and higher on the "evolutionary" scale than nonplay. In
this way of looking at all this, children learn to do the really hard
thing, socializing their imagination, before they get down to work
(externalizing what they are told), and adults have to keep re-
learning how to play and be imaginative throughout life. I like this
way of placing play and imagination in the center of human activity.
I find it helpful – and playful - to think about these things this
way. This perspective certainly cuts across some traditional notions
of work and play. But does it really make sense to view work as a
"derivative" of imaginary play?

The proposal of the “propositional act” as a basic unit of meaning-
making especially gets my attention. Using a CHAT framework for their
theorizing, Ana and Ljubica speak of two kinds of general
relationships, subject-object and subject-subject.

Subject-object relationships, as suggested by Vygotsky and later
developed in CHAT theory, are mediated by artifacts - tools and/or
signs. This mediated relationship is often used as a unit of analysis
in activity analysis, expressed by the familiar activity triangle,
which proposes that not only tools and/or signs mediate the subject
and object, but so also does the social environment, in the form of
mediating factors such as rules, communities, divisions of labor, etc.

Subject-subject relations, as I understand Ana and Ljubica, are
mediated at minimum (that is, at least) by the joint focus of the
subjects. A joint focus, a “TOPIC,” can be anything - a tool, an
interpersonal act, a symbol. The subjects are defined as an active
subject “ME” and a relational subject “YOU”. A “propositional act” or
“COMMENT” occurs when two subjects (ME and YOU) with a common focus (a
TOPIC) engage in a “mediating” (or perhaps connecting?) act or gesture

“What we described here” Ana and Ljubica explain, “is the basic unit
of making meaning through a COMMENT, that is, a communicational
gesture of establishing (or embellishing on) the TOPIC about which the
ME and the YOU create and re-create their relationship.”

Examples of propositional acts include a young child pointing at
something and an adult responding to the child’s focus and gesture
with a connecting act, or a child proposing to another that they
pretend they are mommy and daddy having dinner, and the other
agreeing. Do I have this about right? Perhaps Ana and Ljubica would
be so kind as to correct me if I have something wrong here. It is a
new idea for me, especially as a general unit of human meaning-making.

The authors emphasize that in human communication, the two kinds of
relationships, subject-object and subject-subject, are intricately
connected. “Symbolic mediation should be seen,” they explain, “as
coordination and dynamic interplay between, on one hand, the subject-
object relationship and, on the other, the subject-subject

But how shall these two relationships and two units of analysis be
related conceptually? Since both subject-orientedness and object-
orientedness are intrinsic to all activity, perhaps finding a way to
combine both units of analysis into a unified model would help.

Ana, Ljubica, anyone, what are your thoughts on how this might be
done? Can the propositional act, as a basic unit of meaning-making
between two subjects, be combined with the activity triangle, which
depicts the basic unit of action-making by a subject on an object?
What would such a model look like? What practical implications might
it have?

Thank you for bearing with me in this long post. I get the feeling
everyone is gearing up for the ISCAR conference, (and even the AERA
conference next year), and I too am excited. But I hope that Ana and
Ljubica’s article on play doesn’t get too lost in the shuffle. It has
a number of theoretical ideas I think are well worth discussing.

Below are my attempts at summaries of the theoretical themes of the
paper. Some of the language is in my own wording and I would
appreciate corrections if I have something wrong, or, more difficult
to detect, have missed something essential.

1. Play can be key to learning how to make meaning.
2. Play enables communicative acts to be transformed into cognitive
3. Mediation is a central concept.
4. Mediational factors can be any cultural or social entity (tools,
interpersonal acts, symbols, etc.).
5. Direct relationships become mediated relationships.
6. Symbolic mediation and the development of symbolic tools involves
coordinating both object-oriented and subject-oriented relationships.
7. The propositional act is key.
8. The propositional act is a basic unit of meaning. It consists of
an active subject (ME), a relational subject (YOU), a common focus
(TOPIC), and a mediating or connecting act or gesture (COMMENT).
9. Any form of communication can form a propositional act.
10. The TOPIC is a joint focus or common communication object and the
COMMENT is the associated act of creating that focus or object.
11. Play frames and reality frames are key. Switches between play
frames and reality frames, and ways that play frames are used to
influence real relationships, are very important.
12. A key difference between play and nonplay is that in reality-
oriented activity, objects dictate meaning, but in play-oriented
activity, meaning dominates objects.
13. A "bifurcation point" can be said to emerge when a play frame is
introduced within a nonplay reality.
14. Metaphor can be explained in terms of this switching between play
or imaginary frames, and nonplay frames, where elements of the
imaginary frame are used to comment on elements of the reality frame.
15. The term "play chronotope" refers to the values specifically
contained within a play frame, as well as the imagined time and place.
16. Symbolic mediational acts, the creation of new symbols and
symbolic tools, require the externalization into the reality frame of
TOPICs (imaginary objects of common focus) that are created within
play or imaginary frames.
17. There are three key differences between play and nonplay frames –
in play frames, participants interact indirectly through a TOPIC; play
frame TOPICs develop in many kinds of time frames, such as in the play
itself, in the personal development of a person, in the culture; and
play frames can become tools for complex ideas to be expressed in a
real situation.

- Steve

On Jul 16, 2008, at 1:14 PM, Ana Marjanovic-Shane wrote:

> Dear Eric,
> Thank you for good words about our article!
> Below are some answers to the questions you asked - see my comments
> within your text:
> __________________________
> Dr. Ana Marjanovic-Shane
> 267-334-2905
> On Jul 16, 2008, at 10:43 AM, wrote:
>> Ana & Ljubica:
>> Such a well written and presented article, great quotes and
>> examples to
>> illustrate your thinking. It is always a joy to read something
>> that I
>> viewed over time in discussions that appeared on this forum!
>> Hopefully
>> others will join in the discussion of this great article.
>> Briefly, here are a couple of thoughts
>> 1)Having never read Bahktin ( iknow, i know. . .he is so often
>> referenced
>> that it is simply horrible on my part that I have not) I had never
>> come
>> across the concept of a chronotope. Now that I have been
>> introduced to the
>> concept I really like it! And I should add i am now motivated to
>> read
>> Bahktin. The use of it to describe a play frame is remarkably
>> similar to
>> Mikhail Basov's view on the importance of play in a child's
>> development.
>> This can be referenced in: Basov, M.Ia. (1929) 'Structural
>> analysis in
>> psychology from the standpoint of behavior'. Journal of Genetic
>> Psychology, 36, 267-90. Basov speaks of the child moving from
>> loosely
>> organized temporal events to incorporating 'schemes' into goal-
>> directedness
>> and planning. Is this how chronotope is being used?
> ANA: I did not read Basov, but Bakhtin does not use the term
> "chronotope" to describe any particular developmental process. It
> refers to a unity of time and space and specific values
> (valorizations). It is a useful notion to complement shat has been
> know as a "frame" or more specifically a "play frame". While play
> frame refers more to the boundary and boundary construction -- we
> thought that we also needed to introduce a sense what the particular
> importance of the internal relationships within a specific frame --
> hence, "chronotope"
>> 2)Cognitive development in a child occurs as they experience a
>> methaphor in
>> a playframe and as a child becomes familiar with the use of this
>> metaphor
>> they see examples in their daily activities and when they enter into
>> another playframe they have a 'ready-made' TOPIC that can easily be
>> played
>> with?
> ANA: One of the goals we have in our research is to look at
> development in a holistic manner: not separating cognitive aspects
> from emotional and volitional. Thus, we think that creating
> metaphors (and possibly meanings in general) is based on
> coordination of several relationships -- where relationships have
> not only cognitive aspects but also affective, ideological and
> volitional ones.
> Metaphors, as we see them, furthermore require a specific
> coordination between play frames and and reality frames. Therefore,
> creating a play frame is not enough for development of metaphor -- a
> new way of seeing and organizing reality happens when the play
> chronotope can be used as a comment "for real" - i.e. to reorganize
> the actual, real, serious, ways of seeing, feeling and relating to
> life events. This change is not merely cognitive, it is a full lived
> through experience (perezhivanye) -- involving emotions, hopes,
> decisions, relations to others etc...
>> 3) One last thought pertains to the examples of how a TOPIC is
>> presented
>> in the playframe. "Pretend there is a monster coming" ; "Let's
>> pretend you
>> are my father and I am your daughter." In both instances it is the
>> word
>> that comes first and not the behavior. Perhaps is this why
>> Vygotsky viewed
>> the word as the unit of analysis for the study of human development?
> ANA: In our examples "Pretend" was a word to signal a change of
> frame (chronotope). But the same effect can be achieved through
> different means: a wink, an exaggerated imitation, involvement of
> "impossible" elements in a story, etc... What is important is that
> the participants all agree that what they are doing is within a play-
> frame. If such agreement does not exist, that can lead to different
> consequences (deliberate lies, misunderstandings, disorientation
> etc) -- which were out of the scope of this paper.
> We also did not discuss Vygotsky's notion of the word as a unit of
> analysis is this paper. However, our unit of analysis differs from
> Vygotsky's. We were looking for a unit of analysis at the level of
> the construction of meaning -- and not at a syntactic level to which
> "word" actually belongs as an analytic unit. This can be seen even
> on a purely cognitive plane: if one can place an equation sign
> between a word and its definition (given in a sentence or two), then
> it is clear that meaning cannot be reduced to purely linguistic
> level, but is something of a different quality.
> I also don't think that Vygotsky viewed the word as a unit of
> analysis for the study of human development, but for a much more
> specific aspect of development -- conceptual development.
> In our study we tried to look at the development of views and
> understandings of the world through different units and their
> combinations, however, we attempted to give the development a more
> dynamic character and to see it as part of the ongoing social
> processes and activities.
>> Again, such a great article and thanks for sharing it with XMCA!
>> What do others think?
>> eric
> ANA: I hope I answered your questions, at least in part.
> Ana
>> _______________________________________________
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Received on Fri Jul 18 10:17 PDT 2008

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