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Re: [xmca] Bateson's distinction between digital and analog

I've not been following this thread closely, and so I apologize if I am hijacking it. But like David I have been struck by LSV's treatment of the Kaffir. In LSV’s notes on Concrete Psychology he discusses the examples of a judge and a husband in some detail. He also mentions “Catholic, worker, peasant.” Actually, what he writes is “Kaffir, Catholic, worker, peasant” (p. 65).

The first mention of Kaffir occurs when LSV writes that it is “the social structure of the personality that determines which layers are to dominate. Cf. A dream and the leader of the Kaffirs” (p. 65). He goes on: “In him (the leader of the Kaffirs) sleep acquired a regulatory junction through the social significance of dreams (unexplainable difficulty, etc., the beginnings of magic, cause and effect,animism, etc.): what he sees in his dreams, he will do. This is a reaction of a person, and not a primitive reaction.”

The example of the Kaffir recurs repeatedly throughout these notes. For example: “The relation of a dream to future behavior (the regulatory function of sleep) amounts genetically and functionally to a social function (a wizard, the council of the wise men, an interpreter of dreams, someone who casts lots- are always divided into two persons)” (p. 65). “The relationship between sleep and future behavior (the regulatory function of sleep for a Kaffir) is mediated by the entire personality (the aggregate of social relations transferred inwardly); it is not a direct connection” (p. 67). Overall, LSV mentions the Kaffir 15 times in this short text.

And he used the example in other texts of the time. For example, in The Problem of Consciousness (1934) he wrote: “Consciousness as a whole has a semantic structure. We judge consciousness by its semantic structure, for sense, the structure of consciousness, is the relation to the external world. New semantic connections develop in consciousness (shame, pride – hierarchy ... the dream of the Kaffir, Masha Bolkonskaya prays when another would think ... ).”

“Kaffir” has become a pejorative term in Africa today, especially in South Africa, in large part because it originated in the Arabic term for unbeliever. It is a term used in the Koran in the same way. But until the early 20th century it was used to refer to natives of southern Africa, often specifically to the Xhosa people. It is the term that Lucien Levy-Bruhl used to refer to the natives of South Africa.

For Levy-Bruhl, of course, divination was a symptom of “primitive mentality.” His analysis in The Savage Mind led him to “the conclusion that the primitive’s mentality is essentially mystic. This fundamental characteristic permeates his whole method of thinking, feeling, and acting, and from this circumstance arises the extreme difficulty of comprehending and following its course. Starting from sense-impressions, which are alike in primitives and ourselves, it makes an abrupt turn, and enters on paths which are unknown to us, and we soon find ourselves astray” (p. 480).

The book ends with these words: “In this midst of this confusion of mystic participations and exclusions, the impressions which the individual has of himself whether living or dead, and of the group to which he ‘belongs,’ have only a far-off resemblance to ideas or concepts. They are felt and lived, rather than thought. Neither their content nor their connections are strictly submitted to the law of contradiction. Consequently neither the personal ego, nor the social group, nor the surrounding world, both seen and unseen, appears to be yet ‘definite’ in the collective representations, as they seem to be as soon as our conceptual thought tries to grasp them. In spite of the most careful effort, our thought cannot assimilate them with what it knows as its ‘ordinary’ objects. It therefore despoils them of what there is in them that is elementally concrete, emotional, and vital. This it is which renders so difficult, and so frequently uncertain, the comprehension of institutions wherein is expressed the mentality, mystic rather than logical, or primitive peoples” (p. 447).

At least Levy-Bruhl - after concluding that primitive people have no concepts, no true ideas, no sense of self or society, no definite conception of reality, and fail to recognize the basic law of logic - at least he acknowledged the difficulties for the anthropologist of grasping another way of living in the world. For Levy-Bruhl, primitive mentality was not to be considered an early form of our own reasonable mentality, it was fundamentally distinct, essentially other. He genuinely seemed to want to explore “primitive mentality” objectively, without presumptions, especially avoiding the presumption that such people ought to think the way Westerners do. He wrote that the people he studied did not lack the capacity to think abstractly and logically, they lacked the custom and habit to do so. He tried to treat them as different yet equal, not as childlike, or as historical precursors to his own form of mind. And yet he could not avoid describing these people in prejudicial terms. They are “prelogical,” etc. 

Nonetheless, at times Levy-Bruhl came close to seeing that we are as mystical as they are! “The network of second causes which to our way of thinking is infinite in extent, rests unperceived and in the background in theirs, whilst occult powers, mystic influences, participations of all kinds, are mingled with the data directly afforded by perception, and make up a whole in which the actual world and the world beyond are blended. In this sense their world is more complex than our universe, but on the other hand it is complete, and it is closed” (p. 445). But we too live in a world of the unseen: God, electrons, nuclear reactions, and so on. A select few - our wise men - have the ability to influence these and in a special way to see them. But for the rest of us they are mysterious entities that guide our destinies, or light our houses, or threaten our existence. What Levy-Bruhl called “mystic” was any logic which rested on principals he refused to share (for example, let’s assume that a man’s soul persists in his clothes when he dies), while to reject the premises of a syllogism was exactly what he found fault with!

“The mind of the ‘primitive’ has hardly any room for such questions as ‘how’ or ‘why?’” “Myths, funeral rites, agrarian practices, and the exercise of magic do not appear to originate in the desire for a rational explanation; they are the primitives’ response to collective needs and sentiments which are profound and mighty and of compulsion” (Levy-Bruhl, 1926/1910, p. 25).

But of course the reasoning that he judged irrational was being demonstrated in the context of interrogations by people who had colonized, oppressed, and often enslaved and killed those they were talking to. Bonfil Batalla, writing of the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas, has noted how “a system of cultural control was put into effect through which the decision-making capacities of the colonized peoples were limited. Their control over various cultural elements was progressively wrenched away, as it benefited the self-interest of the colonizers in each historical period” (pp. 67-68). In such circumstances it would hardly be surprising if such peoples were to show little interest in the topics that Western researchers tried to get them to reason about.

In Levy-Bruhl’s account, one of the “most important components of the primitive’s mental experience” (p. 122), and one of the central aspects of mythical mentality, was their understanding of dreams. He described how for “the South African races” dreams assisted in contact with the dead. He recounted not one but three dreams of Kafirs. Here is the second, the most straightforward of the three:
“‘A man dreams that an attempt has been made to take his life by one whom he has always regarded as his true friend. On awakening he says: ‘This is strange; a man who never stoops to meanness wishes to destroy me. I cannot understand it, but it must be true, for ‘dreams never lie.’ Although the suspected friend protests his innocence, he immediately cuts his acquaintance’” (p. 108, citing J. Tyler (1891), Forty Years Among the Zulus). Levy-Bruhl goes on to explain that this unmasking of wizards and revealing of danger stems from the contact which dreams provide with the dead: “The dream is a revelation coming from the unseen world” (p. 109). 

It is a small step from dreams like the Kafir’s to practices of divination, the topic of the next chapter of Levy-Bruhl's book. Levy-Bruhl described how when dreams and omens do not appear spontaneously, the “primitive” will turn to divination. “To calculate the chances carefully and systematically, and try to think out what will happen, and make plans accordingly, is hardly the way in which primitive mentality proceeds” (p. 159). Instead, divination is the tool of choice. 

This is the Kafir that LSV makes reference to in Concrete Psychology. I take great solace from the fact that LSV not only gave the Kaffir and his dream a central place in his sketch of concrete psychology but also, writing just a few years after the publication of Levy-Bruhl’s work, insisted of the Kafir’s dream that “This is a reaction of a person, and not a primitive reaction” (p. 65). The divinatory dreaming of a Kaffir, then, far from being an illlustration of primitive mentality, as Levy-Bruhl would have it, is for LSV an example of the hierarchy among the higher psychological functions.
And lest we assume that those of us in the Occidental world practice only scientific thinking, and that divination is to be found only in premodern societies, in backward, primitive cultures, remember that in May of 2011 a large number of people in the US were sufficiently convinced by Harold Camping’s prophesies of the end of the world that they sold their worldly goods in preparation for their transportation to the hereafter. And how many of us have purchased a lottery ticket based on our favorite number, or our birthdate? 

Or tried to predict the outcome of games of chance? “What is clear in most reports of North American games of chance is that the activity, even when it had crossed the line and become a pastime, was still heavily related to genuine forms of divination” (Csikszentmihalyi & Bennett, 1971, p. 47). And let’s not forget that it was the illustrious Carl Jung who wrote the introduction to the translation of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. Jung believed in what he called synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, and there are Jungian analysts today who use Tarot cards as part of their clinical practice.

And yet, LSV still calls the  Kaffir "primitive." Divination - tossing bones - may be "the beginning of conscious self-control of one's own actions," but it is *only* the beginning. It is merely a way of deciding what to do when there is no obvious basis for choice. His position here is like that of Omar Moore, who, in a much-cited article, argued that the function of divination is to introduce what is essentially a randomization mechanism that disrupts customary practices that have become ineffective (as a result of failure-due-to-success effects, such as hunting out an area, or hunting to the point that the remaining animals become wary and hard to catch). This is to say that divination functions precisely because it *cannot* predict the future!

I find myself somewhat disappointed by such an account. It seems to me it fails to recognize the "closed" nature of our own modern universe.  


On Feb 18, 2012, at 12:35 AM, David Kellogg wrote:

> Larry:
> In History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions (Chapter Two), Vygotsky is talking about the difference between counting "by eye" (на глаз) and counting on your fingers. He points out that herdsmen and hunter-gatherers are far better than city dwellers at the former; they can actually compare groups of tens or even hundreds of dogs, livestock or birds "на глаз" with remarkable precision. By comparing a single group with an imaginary one, they find it quite easy to guesstimate exact numbers.
> Now you might think that counting digitally is also a natural function. I think the early Vygotsky would have called it a "primitive". After all, fingers are also part of the body. If anything, it is rather more intellectually sophisticated, and closer to the real digital system, to estimate numbers by fitting the dogs, livestock or birds into groups and seeing if one or more are missing.
> But the key problem is exactly what you suggest. There is a graphic-visual SIMILARITY between a dog in one grop and a dog in another. There is no such graphic-visual similarity betwween a dog and a finger. So guesstimating  на глаз is an analog operation, while counting on your fingers is, quite literally, digital.
> I think people sometimes misread this part of the book as suggesting that Vygotsky was racist. First of all, he does use the derogatory term "Kaffir" to refer to South African black people. 
> But in fact when he uses the term "Kaffir" he is actually quoting Levy-Bruhl, or rather quoting Levy-Bruhl quoting a missionary called Wangemann, and he edits out the most racist parts of the quote. So I think it is actually more likely that he just thinks "Kaffir" is the name of the particular group of people being talked about.
> In the second place, the whole argument seems to suggest that somehow sociogeny recapitulates ontogeny--that the ways of thinking of "primitive peoples" are essentially identical with those of children, i.e. analog rather than digital.
> I think not so. First of all, he has already rejected the idea that the physical type of man alters during sociogenesis; any "primitive" human and even a cave man, if we could clone him, could learn any cultural function. Secondly, and more generally, he has already rejected any idea that sociogenesis recapitulates or lies parallel to phylogenesis (he calls the process an "analogue" though). So he also rejects the idea that ontogenesis could recapitulate either.
> Thirdly, though,  Vygotsky is quite scathing about both Levy-Bruhl and the missionary: he points out, for example, that it takes far more intellection to reconstruct a Sunday sermon by notching the shoulder-blade of a baboon than it does to memorize it verbally, contrary to what the missionary supposed. In other words, the "Kaffir's" way of recording speech is actually digital while the missionary's is analogue!
> David Kellogg
> Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
> --- On Fri, 2/17/12, Larry Purss <lpscholar2@gmail.com> wrote:
> From: Larry Purss <lpscholar2@gmail.com>
> Subject: [xmca] Bateson's distinction between digital and analog
> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
> Date: Friday, February 17, 2012, 6:52 AM
> I want to reflect on the distinction that Bateson discusses in his
> communication theory that seems to be pointing in the same direction as
> phenomenology's central notion of "expression"
> [Bateson's notions of proto, & deutero, as levels of knowing and how this
> connects to David Kellogg's focus on "reversibility" as central to
> "self-mastery" also are interesting departures. Also historically situating
> the development of his ideas  was fascinating]
> Back to the analog/digital distinction.  Bateson is attempting to move from
> monads to dyads. This may be a limiting factor from a cultural-historical
> perspective but in his exploration of dyadic communication he
> proposes that  communicative action has both digital [language] and analog
> [the non-verbal]  qualities. What is interesting is his premise that ALL
> linguistic practices are always "composing" analog situations "within" [NOT
> "in"] linguistic communication.  In other words, with every speech ACT
> analogical "context" is re-composing or re-configuring.  The "analog
> context" [within dyadic interactions] is always emerging as background FOR
> the digital speech act as figure.  I read this distinction and wonder about
> how this distinction reflects the phenomenological notion of "expression"
> at multiple levels of "intentionality"  Is Bateson's notion of analog share
> something in common with phenomenology's notion of "performative
> intentionality" as the EXPRESSIVE GROUND [the WITHin of linguistic acts?]
> To bring the "abstract" to the "concrete". In my personal relations, if I
> "notice" or am "aware" that the analog context is EXPRESSED and FORMED
> within each unique act of speaking I will be aware of "movement" as
> ground.  From within this perspective the "analog context" is every bit as
> dynamic and temporal as the linguistic digital speech act.  There is no
> "in" or "container" in which to "put" the speech act.  There is only
> gestalten as the "ground" [analog] is as dynamic as the
> "figure".  Communicative action therefore is as fundamentally EXPRESSIVE as
> it is PREDICATIVE.  The reasons and justifications of speech acts are
> ALWAYS EXPRESSIONS forming contexts and all "epistemological knowing" is
> intersubjective and relationally configuring both analog and digital
> phenomena.
> As a counsellor I can "bracket" [but never reduce] and attempt to make
> "explicit" [to my awareness] the "expressive ground" of all speech acts.  I
> can also RESPOND or ANSWER to the analog message rather than the digital
> message.  This form of responding "brackets" the linguistic in order to be
> more sensitive to the analog.  In this sense, shifting the figure and
> ground of communicative action illuminates [visual metaphor or mind as
> seeing] the EXPRESSIVE or ERFORMATIVE intentionality which is usually the
> implicit analogical BACKground to our explicit linguistic utterances.
> I'm not sure if I'm operating within my own "private" language" and
> loosing  "common ground" but it is my attempt to express my sense that
> EXPRESSIVE intersubjective dialogical movement is a fundamental aspect or
> "part" of the cultural historical gestalten.  "Part" as metaphor for "cell"
> that expresses the gestalten.
> Larry
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