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[Xmca-l] Yasnitsky and Van der Veer: Mythbusters!



Or not. So, you thought you knew your Vygotsky, did you? Here are seven
facts you've always believed about Vygotsky that are...well, more or less
right, actually, according to Yasnitsky and Van der Veer's "Revisionist
Revolution in Vygotsky Studies", due to come out on Routledge in the new
year.

1.  Stalinist science was highly centralized, clique ridden, ritualistic,
deliberately esoteric and impractical, parochial, and given to cults and
personality. Sounds familiar? Now, lest you think that I am making an
unfair comparison between Stalinist Russia and today's relatively benign
and bucolic academic atmosphere, note that Anton's revolutionary
revisionist point in this first section is precisely that: the present day
reputation of Vygotsky is based on a very centralized, monolithic
interpretation of his work, drive-by citations and padded reference
lists,an almost complete disjunction between high theory and more or less
banal practice, a geographical focus in just a few centres in Russia and
the West, and a foundational myth of a doomed Moses, who saw the promised
land from the mountaintop and knew he would never set foot there. Is the
comparison unfair? Not at all. If anything, the problem is that it is too
obvious to count as revision, much less as revolution.

There is, however, another problem, or rather two other problems. The first
is that myths are not entirely fiction--it is not a myth but a medical fact
that L.S. Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in June of 1934, and it is not
really much more far fetched to say that he died without ever knowing that
in eight decades he would be translated into the Korean language and widely
read by school teachers in South Korea. The second is that mythbusters are
themselves mythic figures; that is, they take certain historical facts and
construct narratives around them, in this case the narrative that the
previous narrative was constructed around incorrect facts or that it was
constructed around correct facts which have been grossly misinterpreted in
some way. So....

2. There never was a Troika or a Pyatorka: instead, the "Vygotsky School"
was a loose network of scholars who came and went, joined and drifted away,
spread across three cities (Moscow, Leningrad, and Kharkov, although the
loyalty of the Kharkov centre is in doubt). This section, based on
Yasnitsky's Ph.D. work, is--unlike the first section, which manages to be
both sensationalistic and naive--both nuanced and closely argued. But of
course for that very reason it tends to undermine the claims of the first
part of the book. And at the same time, it ignores the most obvious
evidence that there really WAS something like a Pyatorka--the fact that
Vygotsky's own letters referto the Pyatorka, and the fact that the Pyatorka
held meetings, internal conferences, etc, None of this contradicts Anton's
main thesis, which was that the "Troika" and the "Pyatorka" were convenient
constructs (exoteric as opposed to esoteric ways of understanding) for
thinking about the history of the Vygotsky school even while it was
happening. But it also doesn't answer the question I have always had about
the use of the term "Troika". For Trotskyists (and, as Anton points out,
there is clear evidence that Vygotsky has strong pro-Trotsky sympathies),
the term Troika has very bad connotations: it referred to a bureaucratic
bloc between Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev to oust Trotsky from power in the
year following Lenin's death. .

3. Thinking and Speech", far from being Vygotsky's magnum opus, is an
unfinished and highly uneven work, cobbled together from materials which
really fit rather poorly, during the months immediately before...and
after...Vygotsky's death. I think anybody who really knows the chronology
of the composition of Thinking and Speech will not find this controversial;
the facts are well known, and only serve to throw the coherence and power
of the work into greater relief (and also, incidentally, to undermine the
popular idea--which Yasnitsky and Van der Veer DO subscribe to--that there
are three very different Vygotskies believing three very different
foundational ideas at work in the years 1926-1934).

So of course this is not really revisionist and revolutionary enough for
Yasnitsky and Van der Veer. Beyond this, they try to claim that the works
that Vygotsky thought were important are NOT the works that we read today,
and the works we read today are NOT the works that Vygotsky held dear. They
found their argument on Vygotsky's own lists, compiled at three times
during his life, of his own works. The problem is that two of these lists
are part of job applications, and anybody who has ever done a job
application knows very well that you list things that your potential
employer will find impressive, and these are usually quite far from being
the works that you yourself value. Sure enough, by this standard,
Vygotsky's most important work is his first one: "Educational Psychology",
which is surely his most uneven and least visionary, closely followed by
"Imagination and Creativity", which was, as the authors quite correctly
point out, a work of popular science (and includes references to textbook
writers and agony aunts who wrote for the Soviet papers).

Weakest of all are Yasnitsky's claims about the History of the Development
of the Higher Mental Functions and Tool and Sign, to wit, that the former
was a fabrication by the Soviet editors cobbled together from two unrelated
texts and the Russian version of the latter the result of a benign forgery
by Luria and the popular medical writer Elkhonon Goldberg.

First of all, there is strong evidence INSIDE the text of HDHMF that it was
conceived and written as a single work: there is a conclusion which goes
back to the beginning, which remarks on the order in which it was conceived
and how it differs from the order it was written, and how the chapters fit
together. More importantly, the first part DOES lay out the problem, the
approach and the research method followed in the "special studies" of the
second part, just as Thinking and Speech was to do years later. is is
really weak stuff: they

Secondly, as Yasnitsky himself admits, the wonderful story of benign
forgery (actually back translation, not a rare occurence in recovering
historic manuscripts) does not actually explain what it is supposed to
explain, which is the recurrence of several paragraphs, not word for word,
but very nearly so. Yasnitsky explains this by adding a kind of Ptolemaic
epicycle: there were TWO translators, and the editor didn't bother to read
what he was editing, so there was some redundancy. The only authority for
this story, which seems so much less probable than the alternative
explanation that this is simply another instance of Vygotsky's tendency t
repeat himself more or less verbatim in places, is Elkhonon Goldberg ("The
Wisdom Paradox: How Aging Actually Benefits Your Brain", and other must
readings in psychoneurology for aging jet-setters), and an anonymous
blogger (neither source seems very well disposed to their erstwhile
professor, Luria). Of course, the mere fact that a story is highly
improbable and that the sources are somewhat jaundiced do not mean that it
is not true; but in a work devoted to mythbusting, it should mean that it
is...well, possibly mythical.

4. Vygotsky died with an unfinished book on consciousness clearly in mind.
This much too should be have been already very clear to any careful reader
of Thinking and Speech. But this is in fact the most exciting part of the
book, and the only part of the book which really does offer completely new
evidence (it is also the only part of the book which was not written by
Yasnitsky or by Van der Veer). You may disagree with a lot of what
Zavershneva has to say about Vygotsky's supposed Nietszcheanism and his
rejection of "word meaning" as a unit of consciousness in favor of "sense"
(which is, after all, a type of word meaning). You may question, as I did,
whether "perizhevianie" is really intended as a substitute, and if so up to
what point it is a substitute for word meaning. Above all, you may wonder
what the relationship between THIS unwritten work and the other unfinished
works that Vygotsky left us might be ("Teaching on the Emotions" is
mentioned, but there is hardly any mention at all of "Child Development").
But this is the part of the book where you are most likely to learn
something. It's also the part of the book where we see the most Vygotsky
inedit--unpublished Vygotsky.

5. Vygotsky has been poorly translated, and he didn't write either of the
English language books for which he is famous. The facts are depressingly
clear: the 1962 version of "Thought and Language" is something like half of
the original, with all the Marx and Lenin (and also the "redundancies",
which for Yasnitsky are the proof of the inauthenticity of Tool and Sign)
cut away by editors. "Mind in Society" was not a book that Vygotsky ever
wrote but instead (like much of Aristotle, like all of the New Testament,
like the Quran and like de Saussure's "Cours", a compilation put together
by students and students of students (e.g. Mike). I think what the
revolutionary revisionists ignore is the dialectic of that process: "Mind
in Society" was designed to, and did in fact, overcome the significant
omissions of Hanfmann and Vakar's translation: they saw that they could
bring back some of Vygotsky's Marxist roots, and that is exactly what they
did. Yasnitsky and Van der Veer acknowledge that this book, whether by
Vygotsky or not, was the book that started the Vygotsky "boom"; the real
question we have to ask is--what can we actually accomplish with the energy
that "Mind and Society" unlocked? What happens when the rubble of the boom
stops bouncing? Previously, our "revolutionary revisionists" suggested
archival work,authoritative editions, and so on, and of course that is
certainly very much to be desired. But it also ignores the exoteric nature
of the boom and does nothing to overcome the gap between theory and
practice noted in point 1) above.

6. The results of Luria's Central Asian expeditions were suppressed in
order not to inflame resentment among the USSR's national minorities. This
too is extremely well known to people who read Luria's own preface, as well
as those who followed the horrible story of the quasi-official denunciation
of Vygotsky and Luria (see point 7 below). And it turns out to be...well,
more or less true, although Laman and Yasnitsky manage to cloak the truth
in anachronistic phrases like "affirmative action" and "political
correctness" which only show how very little they understand the concrete
realities that Luria and Vygotsky actually faced. The really objectionable
part of this section of the book, though, is the accusation that Vygotsky
is a vulgar Marxist who believed that the change in the relations of
production, without any education, was enough to create concepts in the
minds of Uzbeks. There is no evidence for this in any of Vygotsky's or
Luria's texts, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. (Luria repeatedly
refers to the effect of schooling). Note that Lamdan and Yasnitsky do not
raise a number of key issues:

a) Vygotsky at one point in HDHMF, Chapter Two, criticizes those who take
experiments out of the laboratory and do anthropological fieldwork with
them and calls this method absolutely unjustified. Does this explain why he
did not personally take part?

b) In fact, Luria's experiments were quite similar to what people like
Rivers had done in New Guinea--they were not at all unprecedented; they
were in fact part of a recognized and continuing tradition in
cross-cultural psychology (c.f. Glick and Cole, and also recent work on
chimps and children in Africa). This ethnographic tradition WAS politically
suspect, and for good reason. Is this why Luria refers to it sparingly, and
why Koffka is rather unsympathetic to Luria's (largely foregone)
conclusions?

7. Vygotsky's work was never officially denounced by Stalin himself, but
instead was subject to an informal ban, which did not prevent him from
being favorably cited in the twenty years between his death and the first
publications in Russia. Well, this isn't exactly myth-busting. Stalin was
not particularly well-read; his most critical comment on Vygotsky would
have been something along the lines of "Who?" But this really is both
sensationalistic and naive: it is sensationalistic (and anachronistic) to
imagine that Vygotsky's work was famous enough at his death to deserve the
kind of explicit suppression that, say, Trotsky, Bukharin, Radek, or even
Vavilov suffered. It is naive to imagine that the two almost fact-free
articles published against Vygotsky in the years after his death were
somehow not part of an orchestrated campaign against his work (which began
WELL before he died--why is there no discussion of the 1931 decree on
pedology in Leningrad, something that Vygotsky himself mentions in Thinking
and Speech Chapter Six?)

As Kozulin remarks in a remarkably well-tempered preface, this is a
dangerous book--not so much to the reader, but to the writers. The danger
is that that Yasnitsky and Van der Veer run the risk of busting a gut
rather than busting myths, making revolutionary revisionism out of their
firm grasp of the obvious embroidered with material that is anything but
obvious. When that happens, we get something that is neither a gorgon nor a
minotaur but more like Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest":
something like a monster without being a myth.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University



, and even (in designed to undo some of those cuts.  Like Aristotle, Jesus
Christ, and Muhammad, Vygotsky didn't write or at least didn't edit the
books that made him famous. The problem of course is that Vygotsky didn't
know that he was Vygotsky; he thought he was just "me". and de Saussure,
Vygotsky did not



   So you thought you knew L.S. Vygotsky! Well