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[Xmca-l] Fate, Luck and Chance

Last weekend, like most of the population of Seoul, I left the city to
go down to the countryside. It's the traditional moment when people go
to their ancestral home, meet with members of the whole family, and
make a whole truckload of cabbage into kimchi for the winter, dividing
it up for all the members of the extended family to take home, so I
went to visit some old friends and look at new paintings (as well as
eat the new kimchi before the fermentation has taken the crispness
from the cabbage and the bite from the garlic and red pepper).

As we were scrabbling for parking spots outside a popular noodle
restaurant, I used the Korean word for "fate" to mean "luck", and
everybody laughed, because I had inadvertantly implied that my
ancestors had somehow designated that particular parking spot for us.
I still maintain it was not my fault--the two terms are quite similar
in Korean, and even in English they are rather hard to separate out
semantically without referring to concepts like "subjective" and

Many thanks to Andy for the posting Chapter Two of the History of the
Development of the Higher Mental Functions. It is an incredible roller
coaster ride, but I have always believed that it is the most important
thing on fate, luck, and chance--and even on language--that Vygotsky
ever wrote, even though it hardly mentions language at all.

As I noted earlier, Vygotsky doesn't use the term "artifacts".
Instead, he uses the term "rudimentary functions" to describe things
like drawing oracular lots, tying mnemonic knots, and notching sticks
to calculate numbers. Of course, these are, genetically speaking,
artifacts: they are artificially made.

But I think for Vygotsky what is important is not what is
self-identical and constant but rather what changes. That's why he
rejects the "logical category" approach to classifying both signs and
tools as mediating activities, and that's why he insists that the
precise genetic, functional, and structural relationship of tools and
signs has to be worked out.

So I think for Vygotsky what is important is the change in function.
That's why he calls them "rudimentary functions" and not artifacts,
and that's also why he insists that they have utterly lost the
commanding, "fateful" authority they once had. In LSV's example from
Tolstoy, Pierre Bezukhov forgets all about the message of the game of
Solitaire he is playing to decide whether to stay in Moscow and kill
Napoleon or join the Russian Army and be killed! We use these as games
of luck and not as conduits of fate.

It seems to me that at least some of the recent kerfuffle over Andy's
statement that the "objective" is what is seen as not changeable
through discourse by a given discourse community can be seen
similarly. Pierre's decision is--quite literally--changed through the
trivial discourse of his sister, because he recognizes that the
outcome of the game is only luck, not fate.

Such a change was not possible for the practitioners of "decimation":
When a Roman commander wanted to punish a legion, he counted on this
fingers, and if he pointed to you with his second pinky, you were
bludgened to death, and you called it fate, not luck. These were
people who necessarily took the distinction between subjective and
objective more seriously than we do, but to a certain extent their
distinction beteween fate and luck is the rudimentary form of our own
distinction between the subjective and the objective.

How does Pierre, and how do children, see that what they take as fate
or magic or even skill is simply chance? Of course, the answer is that
some of them never do: I am always a little astonished by my own
ability to attribute a successful class to my own semi-divine
erudition and conversely to blame an unsuccessful one on a diabolical
conspiracy of sultry weather, late subways, and other people's ill
temper. But I think that Vygotsky would find the idea that the child
on his own simply sees through the idea of fate and luck and replaces
them with the notion of chance rather intellectualistic: like the
scene in the Wizard of Oz where Toto knocks over the curtain and
reveals the Wizard as a wizened old circus balloonist speaking through
a megaphone.

I  prefer to think that language plays a vital role: the child learns
to see that things that are made of language can be unmade by
language, and in so doing tranforms fate into luck and then into
chance. But the process is not a single revelation, and it comes as
part of a much broader discovery that includes the ability to
internalize almost any social discourse as a kind of mental grammar
that is more individual, more autonomous and more "subjective".

And so I think that Andy's formulation, although the butt of some
ridicule by good people on this list who could not actually quote it
correctly (I'm looking at you, Martin) is really correct: "objective"
just means that something is seen as not subject to change by a
discourse community, even where that discourse community consists of
just me and my lonely self. That's why Vygotsky says that the
'internal" is simply the psychological, and the external the social.

David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies