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Re: zuhanden/vorhanden Re: [xmca] When does an action begin and end?

I spent a lot of time in my early work on discourse analysis with the problem of segmentation or boundaries, which is pretty much the same as when utterances or meaning-units begin and end. And I did this fairly soon after starting in the context of the larger actions and activities of which the speech was, or would be interpreted as having been, a part.

The conclusions I came to, which are shared I think by many people who do this as a matter of professional practice, are that (a) boundaries are inherently fuzzy, and (b) units are always nested inside larger units. What seems to happen is this: units on different scales, and units defined by different critical features (form, meaning, function, action, etc.) rarely coincide in time/timing at their boundaries. Major boundaries tend to be points where they do coincide, or start/ end almost simultaneously on the relevant timescale. But minor, internal, intermediate boundaries are much fuzzier because the higher- scale units are enlisting a kind of continuity across the boundaries in the lower-scale units. (Higher = longer timescale, larger activity/ speech units).

The issue of consciousness, or automation, or vor/zuhanden depends in part on one's theory of meaning construction. Wolf-Michael notes Heidegger's tendency to emphasize the always-already prior signification in words. Bakhtin adds to this a complementary focus on the re-appropriation of the words of others (prior, presupposing) to make them our own in concrete situated usage (constructive-creative). I suspect H. has both these dimensions, too, but have no texts to cite. Halliday uses a notion of "meaning potential" in words (the prior part), but it is probabilistic and situation-dependent, and various people following him use a notion like "instantiation" or instantial meaning for the here-and-now meaning, which is usually within the meaning-potential expectations, but not always (which can in principle alter the potential over time and repeated usage).

A lot of meaning interpretation/construction is automated, just as a lot of action is, where the default or most-probably meaning-potential option is automatically assumed, unless something goes wrong (as with the broken tool). Many kinds of texts in specialist communities rely on these default readings to avoid ambiguity (but they can still be very ambiguous for non-members). Other kinds of texts (literary, poetic, metaphorical, creative, perverse) deliberately force readers to slow down and make more conscious choices about probable meanings (Roland Barthes' "writerly" texts, for example).

Automated meanings tend, I think, not to impress themselves on us, they just flow past and function mainly to scaffold the ever-next meaning. That makes it quite possible to get to the "end" and find we can't really recall much of what we've just read, even though the meaning of the final units is only clear to us because we have built on the ones that went before. This can even apply to our own writing!

Insofar as an action, sensu stricto in AT, serves some particular goal or function within a larger activity, it also can have fuzzy boundaries when it may subserve more than one goal or function, or where the functions it serves change or evolve on the real-time enactment timescale. Segmentation is neat. Life is not.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On Aug 19, 2009, at 6:46 AM, Martin Packer wrote:

Tony, your gloss of Heidegger seems on the money to me. I would, however, defend the use of term present-at-hand rather than something like present-at-mind. Heidegger is one of those interesting philosophers who insisted that we humans are, as he put it, in-the-world. Even detached contemplation is a way of comporting oneself, of acting bodily, in a concrete situation, so even in such contemplation it is a matter of how things are 'at hand.'

There are interesting similarities between Heidegger and Vygotsky, despite them being at opposite poles politically. Both were trying to articulate a monist ontology, and both described the task as one of analyzing complex totalities. Both saw temporality as central. Both, of course, were heavily influenced by Hegel.

Perhaps rather than say we can use tools without being conscious of them unless they break or go missing or don't fit the task, it is more accurate to say that this is a specific kind of consciousness - tacit knowing, saber rather than conocer (or is it the other way around? I always get that wrong).

And rather than turn to Heidegger for an understanding of the kind of consciousness involved in reading a text, why not skip a couple of generations? Wolfgang Iser, student of Hans-Georg Gadamer who was Heidegger's student, has studied just this: the particular and peculiar kind of interaction a reader has with a textual object. His book 'The Act of Reading' is a (hermeneutic) phenomenology of this interaction. He emphasizes that a text is an object that presents the reader with a collection of “intersubjective structures,” which regulate the act of reading without determining the outcome. These structures are the same for every reader, though each reader will respond to them differently. For Iser, a text is made up of a network of these response-inviting structures. One result is that the reader is conscious of a sequence of distinct perspectives. One has a “wandering viewpoint” through a text, learning first of one character’s experiences and then of another’s, or learning first of one setting then another, or shifting backwards and forwards in time (Iser's principal interest was fiction). Each perspective provides a background to the next. This continually changing vantage point is one indication that the reader can never be conscious of the whole text at once: the text *implies* a whole without actually providing it. So the reader must work to construct a sense of the whole – of a complete and consistent entity – from only partial views.

Iser is concerned mainly with skilled adult readers, and I don't know of work that has applied his ideas to children learning to read. But if such work doesn't exist it would a great idea!

So when David says "Leontiev is taking the position that all skill learning is the automatization of declarative knowledge in the form of procedural knowledge" asks "Why not just say that we are aware of text but that we are deliberately not foregrounding or highlighting it because we are busy foregrounding and highlighting something else?" I want to reply, why not both? When one kind of knowledge gets automatized we discover a whole new set of phenomena that we can foreground and know. In time that will become well enough known that it becomes part of the background, and then new phenomena will become evident, in a process that never ends - the totality of intertextuality appears, for example.


On Aug 19, 2009, at 12:00 AM, Tony Whitson wrote:

I also look to Martin as among those on xmca who may be helpful regarding Heidegger.

Also, I think I used "transpose" when I should have used "counterpose." But the H cogniscenti can staighten us all about these things.

As for swine flu quarantines, some of my grad students have been in China this summer, and it's not at all an imaginary concern. Responses that might seem like overkill in North America can be seen quite differently in the context of countries like China, with such a different population density.

On Tue, 18 Aug 2009, Mike Cole wrote:

Tony-- Lets hope those deeply immersed in Heidegger will help out.
What you are describing sounds a lot like the Merleau-Ponty, Bateson, et al
blind man with the stick example. for those on the list
who have not seen this discussion, which reaches back about 25 years now,
google lchc for "blind man" "stick".

Wolf- Michael has been reading Heidegger over the summer and agrees that he
is relevant to CHAT discussions. David and Andy and
other may be able to help. Or, we can go offline for a couple of months,
catch swine flu, be quarantined, and read English translations
that will prove inadequate!

I am still left very uncertain about the mono-semic use of "consciousness"
in this discussion and it seems relevant. But that, too,
may be a misunderstanding. So much is and its so hard to distinguish from
mike-the-emoticom shortcutter.

On Tue, Aug 18, 2009 at 8:01 PM, Tony Whitson <twhitson@udel.edu> wrote:

To make another connection: Maybe we could correlate this with the
difference, in Dewey's terms, between being engaged instrumentally with something (the tool) in our response to a problematic situation, versus our engagement with that same thing (tool) when IT BECOMES the problematic

Also, it strikes me that there may be a problem with the terminology.
"zuhanden" is translated as "ready-to-hand"
"vorhanden" is translated as "present-at-hand"
I don't think the problem is in the translation, but in the original terminology. Not wanting to presume to correct H on his own thinking, I wonder if it would not be more apt to counterpose "Zuhandenheit" with
something that would translate more as "present-to-mind" or
"present-to-attention" or "present-to-consciousness" (while of course taking
care to avoid using "mind" in a Cartesian sense).

What do you think?

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