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[xmca] When the Message Takes Over the Bottle
Mike gave us a good poem for Thinking and Speech, Chapter Five, where new concepts are made from the bits and pieces of concrete objects. Here is a Chapter Seven poem, about the difference between subject object reference and subject subject reference, which I think tells me something important about Jay's comments on the (potential) sentience of tools.
What had I wanted to say? I forgot.
The blind swallow flies back to Pluto's palace
On amputated wings, and plays with transparent souls.
Night songs sing in unconsciousness.
But no birds sing. Flowering evergreens aren't in flower.
Night's horses have transparent manes.
An empty canoe drifts in the dry river.
The grasshoppers' password is: be unconscious.
Growing, slowly, like a tent, a temple,
Now throwing itself to the side, suddenly, like mad
Antigone, now like a dead swallow throwing itself
At your feet with Stygian tenderness and a green branch.
Oh, if I could give back the shame of sensate
Fingers, the shameful joy of knowing.
Niobes' tears terrify me,
And the fog, the ringing, the gaping opening.
And men can love, men can know,
Even sound pours itself into their fingers,
But I forgot what I want to say
And the unbodied thought goes back to the palace of ghosts.
That transparent thought keeps repeating the wrong thing,
Keeps fluttering like a swallow, my friend, Antigone. . .
And echoes of Stygian ringing
Burn on her lips, black like ice.
(The Swallow, by Osip E. Mandelstam, 1920)
Why does Vygotsky choose THIS poem, and THESE ideas for his epigraph? Up to this moment, Vygotsky has been showing us the “outside-in” development of the child’s thinking:
a) Social speech
b) Word meanings
c) Inner speech
But that is how the system develops. Vygotsky is now going to show us how, microgenetically, his system acts. To do this, he adds, as Mike Levykh has pointed out, a new layer, the affective disposition, or the volition to speak:
a) Affective tendencies, Volitional motives
b) Inner speech
c) Word meanings
d) Social speech
The intention to speak must change microgenetically, from something that is mutable, changeable and idiosyncratic to something that is more fixed, stable, and conventional in order to be understood. That is how it moves from being intra-mental to being inter-mental.
For Mandelstam, symbols are "utvar", or utensils: that is, they absorb the warmth of human interaction and become part of humanity itself. This is from Mandelstam's essay "On the Meaning of the Word", in Mandelstam, O.E. (1977) Austin: University of Texas Press. Selected Essays. (Translated by Sidney Monas.)
“In Hellenic terms, the symbol is a utensil, and therefore any object drawn into the sacred circle of man can become a utensil; and therefore a symbol too (...) Hellenism means consciously surrounding man with utensils (utvar) instead of indifferent objects; the metamorphosis of these objects into the utensil, the humanization of the surrounding world; the environment heated with the most delicate teleological warmth. Hellenism is any stove near which a man sits, prizing its warmth as something related to his own inner warmth. Finally, Hellenism is the boat of the dead in which Egyptian corpses set sail, in which everything is stored that is needed for continuation of a man’s earthly wanderings including even an aromatic jar, a hand mirror and a comb. Hellenism is a system, in the Bergsonian sense of the word, which man unfolds around himself, like a fan of phenomena liberated from temporal dependence, commonly subordinated to an inner bond through
the human “I”. p. 75.
For the Hellenist Mandelstam, influenced by Nietszchean ideas, this is something of an Appolonian tragedy, stately and dignified (even though Apollo was responsible for the tragedy of Niobe!). Hence the reference to Sophocles' Antigone, and to the tears of Niobe (and maybe also Hamlet, where Niobe's tears are recommended to Hamlet's mother), and above all to the Greek underworld (so like the Jewish idea of Gehenna) where human subjects are transparent and disembodied; this is the underworld of speech.
If Mandestam is an Apollonian, then Vygotsky is Dionysian. Here is how Mandelstam describes the moment of development where smysl is overthrown by znachenie:
p. 76: “Man was no longer master in his own house; it would turn out he was living in a church or in a sacred druidic grove. Man’s domestic eye had no place to relax, nothing on which to rest. All utensils were in revolt. The broom asked holiday, the cooking pot no longer wanted to cook, but demanded for itself an absolute significance (as if cooking were not an absolute significance). They had driven the master from his home and he no longer dared to enter there. How is it to be then with the attachment of the word to its denotative significance? Isn’t this a kind of bondage that resembles serfdom? But the word is not a thing. Its significance is not the equivalent of a translation of itself.” P. 76
For Mandelstam the denotative significance, the "znachenie", meaning as something “self-similar”, words that “keep repeating the wrong thing” is seen as bondage that resembles serfdom, because the slave-word will no longer bend to the master's will.
For Vygotsky, it's really the other way around. "Smysl" is almost literally bound to the soil. It is the tying of significance to the serfdom of the immediate grounds of perception, and the "here and now" of (relatively) unmediated reference. Unlike Mandelstam (and rather more like Bakhtin) LSV sees liberation in shared significance; he sees freedom in the idea that one's words talk back.
Shared significance is the moment of development where the word must give up the essential pliability and mutability of the “theme” that we see in the indicative function (“the”, and “this”, and “there”, and “then” all of which have contextually bound “smysl” but no denotative “znachenie”) and instead take on the hypostatic “meaning” that we see in the signifying function (“apples”).
Dictionaries become possible. Yes, of course, a dictionary is only the translation of a word into the equivalent of itself, using the process that Vygotsky described in his section in Chapter Six on the measure of generality. But a possibility is by its very nature not serfdom or bondage; we now have a real choice where none existed before. After all, the older meanings of smysl are not suppressed by znachenie; on the contrary, they are radically multiplied.
For Mandelstam, the poet, this is a tragedy; it is the end of Hellenism. But for Vygotsky, the modernist, this is progress. Ancient Greece was after all a slave society, and the moment when the slave broom refuses to sweep is the moment when it begins to speak with its own voice.
Even Mandelstam says:
“The word in the Hellenic conception is active flesh that resolves itself in an event. Therefore, the Russian language is historical even in and of itself, the incessant incarnation and activity of intelligent and breathing flesh.” p. 69
For flesh to speak, it must breathe. But speaking is not reducible to breathing; for one thing, it is more voluntary. That volition is absolutely irreducible; it's something we see in every slave and not in any tool. And because every word is a generalization, we can also see volition in every cultural symbol and not in any mechanical signal.
Seoul National University of Education
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