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[xmca] Paper Lanterns
There is a special holiday in China, fifteen days after the first full moon, when your maternal uncle is supposed to make you the kind of paper lantern that Eugene gave us (except that it's on wheels). My mother-in-law, whose parentage is not exactly certain for historical reasons, could not supply a maternal uncle for my wife, so we never had a lantern like this, Uncle Eugene!
But of course Achilles gave us the candle, and Professor Kotik-Friedgut put it on wheels. (Kotik-Friedgut 2006 is much admired and often used over here; both my grad students and I have used it in arguing argue for the developmental and not simply the instrumental benefits of bilingualism. I also think that in some ways your use of the term ‘extra-cortical’ is the key to understanding what Vygotsky actually wrote as opposed to what he may or may not have meant!)
On the textology, you are completely correct: Seve uses the 1982 Russian edition to update her original translation of the 1956 edition and that is why she has to alter the passage. Minick also uses the 1982 edition and that is why he translates only what Vygotsky actually wrote and not what he may or may not have meant. The altered Russian passage that I gave you was not from the 1982 edition but from the electronic Smysl edition. I assumed this was based on the 1982 edition, but I am apparently wrong (the section partitions are different too).
But now I want to argue that what Vygotsky actually wrote does make sense and there isn’t any reason for us to alter it when we translate it into Korean (which is what we are doing this week). In general our policy is the same as Luciano Meccaci: we take it that the 1934 text, which was supervised by the dying Vygotsky, is a finalized text and we don’t emend it even when there is apparently a good reason to do so (e.g. Vygotsky’s rather confusing use of “longitude” to mean “position of a concept on a line of longitude’, which most of us would call “latitude”).
The two examples that Vygotsky refers to are these:
Как трудно переносить ребенку название одной вещи на другую, видно из опытов, в которых по инструкции устанавливается условное название предметов ненастоящими именами. В опыте заменяются названия ≪корова . собака≫ и ≪окно . чернила≫. ≪Если у собаки рога есть, дает ли собака молоко?≫ . спрашивают у ребенка. . ≪Дает≫. . ≪Есть ли у коровы рога?≫ . ≪Есть≫. . ≪Корова . это же собака, а разве у собаки есть рога?≫ . ≪Конечно, раз
собака . это корова, раз так называется . корова, то и рога должны быть. Раз называется корова, значит, и рога должны быть. У такой собаки, которая называется корова, маленькие рога обязательно должны быть≫.
"How difficult it is for the child to transfer the name from one thing to another is seen from experiments in which we set up temporary names for objects in place of their usual names. In the experiment of substituting the name ‘dog’ for ‘cow’ and the name ‘window’ for ‘ink’ we asked the child ‘If a dog has horns, does it provide milk?’ ‘It does.’ ‘Do cows have horns?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘But the “cow”’ is the same as a dog. So does a dog have horns?’ ‘Of course. Once it was a dog but now it is a cow. If it is a cow, then it should have horns. In such dogs as we call cows, there must be little horns.’
The child gets the first question right: the dog which has horns is really a cow, so it will in fact give milk. But then the experimenter asks another question about whether cows have horns, and the child gets it wrong. There are many ways to interpret this:
a) The child is being completely consistent: the child said that it was impossible to exchange names at the beginning and the child is insisting on this impossibility. Of course, the child is quite right: the child is thinking of the social reality of language and not of the language game.
b) With the second question, the child assumes that the experimenter has abandoned the game and reverted to calling a cow a cow (which of course he does when he explains why the child’s answer is wrong). The second question is therefore not about dogs but really about cows, and the child answers correctly.
c) The child assumes that this is an entirely imaginary situation in which it is possible to have dogs with horns. This is what Piaget calls ‘romancing’, but Piaget is as wrong to eliminate this from his data as he is to eliminate the conceptions which the child apparently takes over wholesale from adults.
It’s not clear to me why we need to assume that any one of these explanations is the sole explanation; it’s obviously possible that all three can be true, and that the child is treating the interaction as a kind of verbal duel, adopting first one interpretation and then another (probably in that order). If we consider that the child is thinking in complexes, where ‘cow’ can indicate membership in first one group of objects and then in another, this makes perfect sense.
Instead, Vygotsky adopts the same interpretation that Piaget gives in ‘The Child’s Conception of the World’, where he talks about ‘Nominalism’. This is to assume that the child is thinking in something like spontaneous concepts, which give us the structure of his thinking. Vygotsky correctly criticized this interpretation when he noted that the contention of the Bororo that they are ‘red parrots’ is not necessarily absurd but based on complexive reasoning that is fundamentally similar to a lot of the sub-conceptual thinking that modern people use.
For example, the same kind of reasoning is used by the founders of the USA when they argue that theirs is a democracy in the same sense as Ancient Greece. Jefferson assimilates American ‘democracy’ to a previous society which it resembles in certain completely nonessential ways while ignoring resemblances that are more essential (e.g. slavery). Similarly, when Korean women refuse to recognize high heeled shoes as a variant of the Chinese practice of footbinding, or breast enlargement as a relatively painless but maximally invasive form of ritual female body mutilation such as circumcision and infibulation, they seize on nonessential differences in order to ignore essential similarities.
Why does Vygotsky revert to Piaget’s reasoning here? Suppose Vygotsky is simply replicating Piaget, presenting the results of Piaget’s experiments as Piaget presents them, as part of the immanent critique that he pursues later in Chapter Seven (in the experimentum crucis). Vygotsky is saying that if we go down this road, we treat the semantic plane and the auditory plane as being initially fused and only subsequently differentiated; we treat the semantic plane as already existing, albeit only potentially, as an aspect of the word, subject to future differentiation.
That's how it looks to a developed consciousness; that is how it looks in a structural analysis and even a functional one. But that's NOT how it looks to the undeveloped consciousness, and it's not how it looks to a historical, or genetic analysis.
This "primitive consciousness" is consistent with the way Vygotsky wrote "phasal and auditory" rather than "phasal and semantic". When Vygotsky refers to "primitive consciousness" of language when he speaks of the merged semantic and sonic planes of speech, he is merging the ontogenetic and the phylogenetic. Accordingly he CANNOT with any consistency differentiate between "primitive" and "developed" cultures. The example that Humboldt refers to is not, as Minick has translated it, a "peasant" but rather "a simple man" or "a commoner" and of course one of the surest methods of distinguishing between the semantic and sonic planes is foreign language learning, something much more common among "primitive" cultures (e.g. Papua New Guinea) than "developed" ones (the USA and Britain),
To THAT consciousness, the word looks like Eugene's lantern, or rather, it looks like TWO lanterns.
"The most convenient and correct [way of analysis] is to consider the word as an image; that is as a verbal representation. In this way, the question of the form and the content becomes irrelevant: the form is viewed as phonetics and the rest as the content. Similarly, the question of what is more primary -- the word's signification or its sound nature -- becomes irrelevant. The verbal representation is a complex set of phenomena, a connection, a "system". It is possible to consider [view] the word's signification as a candle, lighting [burning] from inside of a paper lantern; and in reverse, the sound representation, or a so-called phoneme, can be placed inside of the [word's] signification, like the very same candle inside the very same [paper] lantern."
In one lantern, the word meaning is inside the paper lantern, shining through the material substance of the phonemes. In another, the word meaning is outside the paper lantern, radiating from the phonemes within. What are we to make of THIS?
Well, first of all, I think that neither Mandelstam nor Vygotsky mean by phoneme what we mean today by phoneme. Vygotsky, as we know, rejects the associationist theory of semantics that lies at the heart of Saussure's linguistics (presented so accurately, in all of its absurdity, on p. 136 of the current issue of MCA). But he loved Saussure's phonemes, so much that he even assimilates things like grammatical gender, case, and tense to the "phasal" properties of language (which is usually translated as "phonetic".
These are "phasal" in the sense of being SYNTAGMATIC, LINEAR, and also in the sense of being EXTERNAL ("facial"), In other words, they are the way language appears to the hearer...sonorous parts and then a semantic whole. They are the AUDITORY unity of the utterance. This actually IS the way Saussure conceived of phonemes: distinctions bearing semantic difference, not at all at the minimal sound segement level we use today. His example is not the /k/ in "back" vs. the /g/ in "bag", which is what Saussureans today think, but rather the difference between "je l'apprends" and "je la prends".
My second point about Eugene's lantern depends on the point the other David K(irshner) was just making. David asks how Leontiev's account of children learning to do arithmetic while holding plates over their heads differs from a fundamentally Piagetian view, whereby kids just have to go back to the individual psychological drawing board. Where, he asks, does sociocultural mediation come in, and how does its internalization form part of the solution?
Numbers can be many things: objects, groups of objects, quantities of objects, quantities without objects, relationships. But they can also be words, and of course a word is a thing that is impossible for one but necessary for two. Part of this necessariness is the necessity of TWO experiences in every word: the experience of the SPEAKER in which the semantic properties of the utterance come first and the phasal properties emerge one by one, and the experience of the HEARER, in which the phasal properties appear first and the semantic whole follows.
So every word is two lanterns, just as Mandelstam tells us. The speaker's lantern has a semantic candle and a phonetic lampshade, and the hearer's is the other way around, with a semantic penumbra and a phonetic light source. And, of course, when this distinction between the speaker's word and the hearer's word is "internalized" (not, I think, by making children hold plates over their heads, nor by fixing the children's tongues with forceps when they read) it appears as a distinction between a "semantic" and a "phasal" plane.
(Actually, my wife did get a lantern once, as a little girl. One of her neighbours came back from Shanghai with expensive paper for their own children, and with the leftovers they made lanterns for my wife and her brother. Being only three or four, they tugged too vigorously on the string, and the lanterns both toppled and burned long before they could get them home. Sic transit gloria mundi!)
Seoul National University of Education
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