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Re: [xmca] On Marxist and non-Marxist aspects of the cultural-historical psychology of L.S. Vygotsky by Nikolai Veresov
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- Subject: Re: [xmca] On Marxist and non-Marxist aspects of the cultural-historical psychology of L.S. Vygotsky by Nikolai Veresov
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- Date: Fri, 20 Feb 2009 01:59:47 -0800 (PST)
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First of all, a very warm welcome, and fulsome thanks for your thoughtful, balanced, and critical remarks on an article that, as I said, we have been discussing a lot here in Korea.
Some of us interpreted the article as you did, as an attempt to disengage Vygotsky from an intellectual current which is not very popular in Russia right at the moment. Like you, we thought this a serious mistake. However, others pointed out that the strength of the article lies precisely in its periodization.
This periodization completely confounds the idea that Vygotsky's Marxism was "window dressing". Vygotsky called himself a Marxist when it was NOT mandatory, during the period immediately following the Civil War. But he stopped calling his psychology Marxist when it became virtually compulsory to do so.
It's quite interesting to compare this to Bakhtin. This morning I read Bakhtin's "Prefaces to Tolstoy", which are part of Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson's "Rethinking Bakhtin", 1989, Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Actually, what Emerson and Morson are rethinking is not Bakhtin but Holquist and Clark, but perhaps the title "Rethinking Holquist and Clark" would not sell very well.
Holquist and Clark, as we know, claim that Voloshinov's great work, "Marxism and the Philosophy of Language" was cleverly authored by Bakhtin, with "Marxism" as window dressing. David Bakhurst's reply (in "Introduction to Vygotsky", Daniels ed. 2005 London: Routledge) was to ask why, if Bakhtin was a Christian in search of Marxist window dressing, he would bother to make a MAJOR contribution to Marxism and the theory of language (which Voloshinov's book certainly is!) Holquist and Clark replied that Bakhtin was simply incapable of repressing his genius and originality. Actually, the Tolstoy prefaces suggest that Bakhtin was pretty good at repressing them: they are dull, turgid pieces that advocate a monologically socio-ideological novel as a good model for Soviet socialist realism.
"Marxism and the Philosophy of Language" is NONE of these things, but it is thoroughly Marxist, both in method ("rise to the concrete") and in conclusions (for a sociological poetics). Yet I recently wrote a review of this book which was rejected by a well-known journal on the grounds that I didn't talk about Volosinov's Marxism enough.
On inquiry, it soon transpired that what the editor meant was that I didn't condemn Volosinov as a Stalinist. Of course, I didn't do that for a good reason. He wasn't a Stalinist; he might have survived otherwise. He was a Marxist, and an extremely original one at that, a genius. But I don't have time to explain the difference between Stalinism and genius to editors who are not particularly interested in either one.
I think what's really interesting about this question of how explicit to be about Marxism is not just the historical side. It's the side that is actually relevant to us today; to what degree is the "M" in xmca about Marxism, and to what extent is it "merely" about mind.
In the "literary discussions" around the Proletkult in the early twenties, Trotsky labelled a number of writers (e.g. Demyan Byedny) as "fellow travelers", because they were sympathetic to Marxism but not explicitly Marxist; they would go part of the way along the road with Bolshevism but at some point along the way there might be a fork in the road.
Yet Trotsky argued that psychologically penetrating works like Don Quixote and Shakespeare would long outlive the party programme, Marx's Capital and even the Communist Manifesto. So in an important sense, he saw Marxists as the "fellow travellers", walking part of the way down a road with great artists, and also with the very young science of psychology, a road which the artists and psychologists would travel much further. Of mankind's great tragedies, namely hunger, sex, and death, Marxists were only concerned with the first, which he believed was about to be solved.
Well, of course that was a little optimistic! But I think it's basically right; Marxists ARE fellow travelers as far as psychology and art are concerned. So I think it rather odd (though understandable) when, here in Korea some people see Vygotsky as little more than a convenient way to popularize Marxism (which, it is true, is still legally repressed).
I also think it rather crude and even wrong to talk of a Marxist psychology, a little like talking of a "Darwinist sociology". To me, it suggests the mechanical transposition of laws worked out for one semiohistorical time frame (sociocultural progress) onto another (ontogenetic growth). This is really why I think that Andy's "practice" and Leontiev's "activity" and Wertsch's "mediated action" are too broad to function as microcosms of cosnciousness; each semiohistorical time frame needs its own unit of analysis. I still dare to hope that the usefulness of my political beliefs will be as short-lived as possible and that I will be able to devote my retirement entirely to good sex, bad painting, and belated death.
Seoul National University of Education
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