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Re: [xmca] Leontiev and Sign (Silverstein and complexes)

Interesting to hear about other's connecections with
Silverstein.  I'm in the Department of Comparative Human
Development (CHD) here at the U of C and spend some of my time
running with the Silverstein circles (I have also taken some
classes from him). RE: Silverstein's work, I agree
wholeheartedly with Jay's characterization of his work as
"difficult to summarize", so I won't try (but if anyone has a
particularly pointed question, I'd be happy to give it a go).
With regard to semiotic mediation, I think that Silverstein's
work is probably too significant of an investment for most
(although it pays substantial "dividends" over the long haul).
A better alternative (and I've mentioned this before in posts
on XMCA) is the work of Silverstein's student, John Lucy (here
in CHD). I think that his work is easier to get into than
Silverstein's and is more directly relevant to the broad issue
of "semiotic mediation" and the perspective of linguistic
relativity. Additionally, his more recent papers have been
looking at issues of development (many articles are available
at his website:

Instead, I'll offer a brief description of the one text of his
(that I am aware of) where he makes reference to Vygotsky
("Vygotskij" is his preferred spelling). His is an interesting
way to put Vygtosky's notion of "complex" to work and speaks
to Mike's suggestion in a previous post that we spend much of
our time thinking in complexes.

It comes in a short monograph: "Talking Politics: The
Substance of Style from Abe to 'W'". The topic is political
talk and is probably one of the most playful and least
theory-ish essays of his. It appears to have been motivated by
the misfortunate language usagings of our most recent two term
president (but note: it isn't (solely) about Bush-bashing, he
is raising a more fundamental question about American politics
as well as the tastes of the electorate). 

Silverstein invokes Vygotsky's notion of "complexes" to answer
the following set of questions:
"How does what impresses us as the very height of *illogic*
have a processual 'logic' of its own, such that successful
politicians' discourse respects this logic? And where can we
see these processes at work, where 'issues' get lumped and
turned into 'message'-operators available for stylistic
fashioning of image? How does a politician fashion 'message'
as a kind of magnet for sometimes randomly assembled 'issues,'
that clump to it like iron filings arrayed in its magnetic

Silverstein says that the notion of "complexes" give us an
answer to this. It is a local similarity of one "message" to
the next that gives the impression of coherence. Any two
"messages" taken in sequence will show a family resemblance
even when the whole lot is very diverse overall. Silverstein
notes that complexive thinking is what characterizes things as
varied as: thinking out loud, casual conversation, and
Anglo-American case law.

So then, it is these "chain complexes" of "issues" that are
"the raw semiotic materials" that are then brought together to
make the image.

Whereas in this essay Silverstein is primarily interested in
the reception-side of things, we might also extend this to the
production side of language by considering some more recent
instances of political talk by the supposed (by some)
successor of the Bush legacy, Sarah Palin. One might be able
to make some sense of her discourse if we take her talk
concept by concept and look at how she puts together a string
of discourse that has "coherence" from one second to the next,
but is utterly incoherent if you look across more than two
seconds of talk (and this reminds me of the Saturday Night
Live episode in which Tina Fey got huge laughs with her Sarah
Palin imitation, lampooning all the incoherences - or so the
audience thought. As it turned out, Fey wasn't lampooning at
all, rather she was simply reproducing Palin's words, word for
word. Big laughs.). But maybe my colleague who works on
schizophrenic language might be able to better speak to the
structure Palin's language.

Hope that was of some interest - at least complexively if not


Date: Wed, 7 Oct 2009 00:15:36 -0400 (EDT)
From: Tony Whitson <twhitson@UDel.Edu>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Leontiev and Sign
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Message-ID: <Pine.SOL.4.60L.0910062359200.24436@copland.udel.edu>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"

first, about Stanton Wortham:

He is second author, with one of his students, of an awesome
new book
which I think is titled "Bullish on Uncertainty." I have some
disagreements (I think) with some of the formulations; but I
think this is
a book that everybody interested in CHAT would find worth
reading. (It
won't be reviewed in MCA because Wortham is the MCA book
review editor.)

On Silverstein, just to mention my own contact: Jay and I were
both at the
1985 International Semiotics & structual studies institute
garbeled that name) in Bloomington in 1985. I went again in
1986 at
Northwestern (Evanston, IL; north suburb of Chicago) where one
of the
seminars I participated in was Silverstein's (he was U.
Chicago). Rick
Parmentier was also in that seminar (he had already been a
major influence
on my understanding of Peircean semiotics). I had read some
before I went there (one of his students was an Asst. Prof. in
anthro at
Rochester, where I was a Ph.D. student), so I might have been more
prepared, but I found his seminar to be intensely helpful and also
quite accessible.

On Tue, 6 Oct 2009, Jay Lemke wrote:

> I've had a long familiarity with Silverstein's work. Two of
my best friends
> were his doctoral students many years ago, and his work has
> parallels to my own, though we've never really had a
personal dialogue.
> Silverstein was a pioneer in bringing linguistics and
anthropology together,
> sort of the next generation after Dell Hymes. But he was not so
> ethnographically oriented (as Dell's own students were, e.g.
Michelle Fine,
> Judith Irvine, Elinor Ochs et al.), and was more of a
theoretician, trying to
> compete with the Chomskyans, setting a functionalist
paradigm against the
> formalism dominant in linguistics. He was a student of Roman
Jakobson at
> Harvard, and he must have encountered Voloshinov and
probably Vygotsky, if
> not then, later.
> What he has mainly tried to do is to show how the reflexive
capacities of
> language for talking about talk, and for talk as a form as
action (cf.
> Austin), help us understand how it becomes a powerful tool
for social action
> and a bridge between culture in the macro-social sense and
semiotic action in
> the micro-social sense. From Jakobson he took the key
linguistic idea of
> "shifters", more formally called indexicals, and broadened
its application to
> understand how what we say always both says something about
us and at the
> same time helps remake ourselves and the situation we are
talking about into
> what it then is (or is for us).
> Silverstein is not easy to summarize, and he is even harder
to read, and
> hardest of all to understand when he presents orally
> Unfortunately for some reason he never wrote a magnum opus
(or hasn't yet),
> so his ideas are scattered among many papers, each one quite
brilliant in
> itself.
> I think Stanton Wortham, one of his former students, reads
xmca and might
> give a better overview.
> JAY.
> Jay Lemke
> Professor (Adjunct)
> Educational Studies
> University of Michigan
> Ann Arbor, MI 48109
> www.umich.edu/~jaylemke
> On Oct 5, 2009, at 3:32 PM, Tony Whitson wrote:
>> The questions L is asking make me think of the linguistic
>> Michael Silverstein. (Anybody here have views of his work?)
A relevant
>> collection, including some Silverstein, but also Wertsch,
Holzman, and
THOUGHT, edited
>> by Maya Hickmann, Academic Press 1987. There's only one
Leontyev ref in
>> the index, which is in a string of citations incl.
Vygotsky, Luria,
>> Leontyev, Scribner & Cole, LCHC 1981, and Wertsch. That
appears in a
>> chapter by Elinor Ochs, with whom, if I'm not mistaken,
David Kirshner has
>> had some acquaintance.
>> L's conjecture (below) seems harmonious with Peirce, it
seems to me,
>> except that Peirce would start not with perception, but
with "feeling,"
>> which we can't really know directly because it is eclipsed
by any thinking
>> about it. But Peirce was very much concerned with how more
advanced signs
>> spring from and depend on such things as feeling and
perception. Again,
>> though, the caution that he wrote as a logician, not as a
psychologist or
>> linguist.
>> On Mon, 5 Oct 2009, Achilles Delari Junior wrote:
>>> Hi, XMCA.
>>> In his letter to Vigotski, A. N. Leontiev wrote about a
number of
>>> theoretical
>>> that he understood "fundamental". The fifth one touch the
problem of
>>> "sign".
>>> He said, for instance that "my intuition here is that the
sign is the
>>> key!"
>>> I think that is very important to recognize that
Vygotsky's theory is
>>> also
>>> an activity theory, but is there some study that searchs
>>> contributions
>>> to "semiotic mediation" theory?
>>> "5. In addition to these it is essential to work out
>>> questions,
>>> directly guiding specific research.
>>> It seems to me that among them belong: (a) The problem of
>>> S[ystems]: �possible� (i.e., something like quantum)
>>> relations and �possible� functions of functions (after all
a system is
>>> not a
>>> spring salad, but something presupposing only the
possible, i.e.,
>>> certain
>>> combinations); (b) Determination of i[nter]f[unctional]
relations (the
>>> conditions
>>> under which they arise, the process of their birth, factors (=
>>> determinants);
>>> here an experiment in their artificial formation is necessary,
>>> that is, a �dynamic argument� is needed, an experiment
along the lines
>>> of
>>> �ingrowth�). Here, it is necessary to think through the
place, the role
>>> of
>>> the sign; my belief, or more precisely, my intuition here
is that the
>>> sign
>>> is the key! Roughly speaking, the first operations with
>>> involve
>>> perception, further, the f[unctional] s[ystem] of
perception, an
>>> intell[ectual] operation. What has transformed the
perc[eption] of
>>> quantities�
>>> this simple operation, into a higher intell[ectual]
function? The
>>> inclusion of a unique sign�the concept of numbers, that
is, the sign, a
>>> medium of intell[ect] (thought!). If this concept is real,
>>> perception,
>>> operations with quantities using it specifically, is also
included in a
>>> syst[em] of conceptual thought. This is all very crude and
the example
>>> has not turned out successfully (it seems�there is no time
to think!);
>>> (c) The problem �intellect�will,� that is, the problem
(figuring out the
>>> problem!) of intention (this is already a given!); and (d)
>>> as a
>>> syst[em] expressed in concr[ete] problems, that is, how it is
>>> formulated."
>>> (LEONTIEV, 2005, pp. 74-75)
>>> Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 43,
no. 3,
>>> May�June 2005, pp. 70�77.
>>> � 2005 M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
>>> Thank you.
>>> Achilles
>>>> From Brazil.
Greg Thompson
Ph.D. Candidate
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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