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Re: [xmca] The Origins of Pointing and Child "Syncretism"

In South Korea, when I first arrived in 1998, we were given a kind of crash course on Korean culture which was designed to keep us from offending people. Like a lot of this sort of thing, it involved a list of dos and don'ts. For example, we were told not to blow our noses at the table, not to wite anybody's name in red ink, and not to point and anybody, not even students when initiating in class.
All of the dos and don'ts were simultaneously true and not true, but more interestingly all of the dos and don'ts appear to refer to things which, understood as abstract principles, appear to me now to be cultural universals. Even in Korea it is permitted to dab delicately at your nose when you eat kimchi, and even in the savage West it is not particularly polite to splatter your snot all over the meal of your fellow diners. In Korea you CAN write a letter entirely in red, even the salutation and the name, and teachers often do this, and even in the savage West we would think it odd to see our name highlighted in red on a list of others (in China this is used to indicate that someone has been executed). 
Pointing with the palm of your hand is the same. There is a "Cultural Footnote" in one of our textbooks which tells a rather Hofstedean story about a Korean who goes to America and tries to coach a soccerl team. At one point he wants to beckon to the team and uses the normal Korean gesture for this, which is hand outstretched, palm down, fingers moving rapidly in the direction of the speaker, as if you were scratching an imaginary dog. The team takes this as a waving goodbye, and to the Korean coach's chagrin all leave the stadium and go home, forfeiting the game.
Of course, everything about this story marks it as apocryphal, from the moment we read about a Korean coaching an American soccer team (Korea normally imports the coach of its national team from Europe, and of course athletic hatred for the USA is generally at fever pitch, since it is one of the few outlets for anti-colonialist sentiment which Koreans allow themselves). But in a vain attempt to get this story removed from the textbook, I tried a series of experiments with American children and then with American adults.
I placed a row of children about fifteen feet away and then used the Korean beckoning gesture to see how they responded. I then asked them what it meant. Children who were less than ten always responded correctly and came to me, although they could not always explain that the gesture meant "come here" and one of them even said I was waving goodbye. Adults, on the other hand, sometimes came to me and sometimes said that I was waving goodbye.or scratching the air or something like that.
Now, in practice, these misunderstandings are unlikely because gestures are always very heavily contextualized. But I was still puzzled at the result, so I did a little experiment. I used the gesture with my fingers moving more rapidly TOWARD me, and the children came towards me. I then did the SAME gesture with my fingers moving rapidly AWAY and the children stepped away from me. So clearly the gesture is INDEXICAL: you INDEX the motion you want from your audience by moving your fingers in the direction you want them to move more rapidly than in the other direction. 
This indexicality is  (as far as I can figure out) to some degree NONcultural and universal; it is why you can beckon to dogs and why the gesture is offensive to people. And of course this universalism is of course exactly what we would expect to find in Carol and Paula's work: the more we go towards syncretism (the heap, the jumble) the more we find universal categories, and the more we go towards conceptual thought the more we find functional differentiation.
And it's HERE that I'm a little skeptical about LSV's canonical account of the genesis of the pointing gesture, but for slightly different reasons than Mike (Cole and also Tomasello). I think that gestures must have a genetic history, at the root of which is ostension, and thus child syncretism. But syncretism is not to be interpreted in the Piagetian sense (that is, the child's actions are autistic, solipsistic, irrational, a form of syncretic religion which allows the child to believe that presents come from Santa Clause AND from Mom and Dad at one and the same time, and a gesture can mean anything). 
Syncretism is to be interpreted in the Vygotsyan sense, as a purely SUBJECTIVE attitude which is nevertheless purely oriented toward reality. This attitude persists longer than we might think; I have sat through numerous dinnertable conversations between adolescents which consist of little more than "What's your favorite X?" and "Y is cool (sweet, awesome, gnarly) but Z is for dorks (doofuses, dimwits)." The vocabulary is what I would call almost entirely syncretic: the functional equivalent of the concept is the heap, the jumble, the pile.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education.

--- On Sat, 8/15/09, Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu> wrote:

From: Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Concerning the origins of Pointing
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Date: Saturday, August 15, 2009, 1:07 PM

Apparently in Japan it considered rude to point with one finger directly at a person. But otherwise pointing is fine, and is even used to direct ones higher psychological functions! as this link documents:



On Aug 15, 2009, at 1:46 PM, Mike Cole wrote:

> PS--Work too much? You jest!!
> Bach is playing in the background. the garden has been watered, our dog has
> taken us for a walk, we saw a fantastic
> production of Cyrano translated by Anthony Burgess that had my mind reeling
> about the magic of language, ventriloquation,
> the connection between ashes and diamonts, writting vs speaking, and  lot
> more. And there is so much interesting here at xmca to think about. Not to
> mention the few pages of George Elliot that i get through each day. Amazing
> to read long passages in which she is
> giving voice to a form of zionism that has contemporary relevance that is
> mind boggling.
> Work? Work is when our faculty return and classes start. Then the horrendous
> massacre of a great public university will make
> getting up in the morning a real chore because in addition to financially
> overburdened students, the faculty will be fighting for
> their perks in the name of virtue, a situation that provides an iron clad
> guarantee of unpleasantness.
> m
> On Fri, Aug 14, 2009 at 5:39 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:
>> Thanks for that Mike. Ask a question on this list and the answer is not
>> long in coming. A case of joint attention I guess.
>> As I understand this excerpt, the idea of pointing growing out of attempted
>> grasping in ontogenetic development is ruled out, but the "precision
>> grasping" movement with thumb and forefinger and the pointing gesture with
>> thumb *not* opposing the forefinger are co-evolved reflexes (?) and the
>> discovery is pushed back from Vygotsky and Dewey to Darwin (sort of). And
>> co-attention (gaze-following) precedes pointing at distant objects.
>> All of which points to the communicative functions developing
>> ontogenetically in advance of I->object functions. Is that right? And we
>> should take the grasping-then-pointing idea really just as part of our
>> history.
>> thanks Mike.
>> you work too hard!
>> Andy
>> Mike Cole wrote:
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