[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[Xmca-l] Re: Mediating Activity and Mediated Activity

David, I am responding to "Tool use--and even tool manufacture--is quite common in higher primates. But while the higher primates regularly use gesture, there is no evidence of any other species developing anything like a lexicogrammar."

In his somewhat discredited book "Ape, Primitive Man and Child," Vygotsky makes the point that the form of activity which is found in non-human animals in *rudimentary* form but is fully developed in humans, is the key to the "transition from ape to man" and is thus the "essence of man" (to use a lot of 19th century language). That is why he was so determined, at the time, to find "rudimentary" forms of writing among not-literate peoples (those memory sticks and knots).

For all the faults of this work, I think this was a profound insight. What he seemed to have been blind to is that the larynx evolved together with the hand, and human beings learnt to speak at the same time as they learnt to make tools. It was only in 1931 that he recognised that a spoken word was as much a sign as a piece of technology manufactured for communicative purposes - which nonetheless, did turn out to mark a qualitative leap in human cultural development.

The great insight from this work is that despite himself, he looked *not* at the attribute of human beings which was exclusively found among humans (lexicogrammar) as the "essence of man," but on the contrary to the mediating activity which produced the change from one species to another. This is the Hegelian idea of concept, a.k.a. species, as opposed to the positivist concept of species/concept which looks for "essential" attributes as definitive. But he didn;t know that until 1931.


Andy Blunden
On 4/05/2016 1:48 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

Tool use--and even tool manufacture--is quite common in higher primates.
But while the higher primates regularly use gesture, there is no evidence
of any other species developing anything like a lexicogrammar. It's in that
sense that I was arguing that tool use has temporal priority over signs. I
don't think tools and signs co-evolved phylogenetically any more than they
co-evolve ontogenetically. I think that practical intelligence and
speech have separate genetic roots and separate functional paths, the one
oriented towards the environment and the other towards conspecifics.

While he was in prison, Oscar Wilde was allowed one sheet of paper a day,
which was issued to him in the morning and then locked in a safe in the
evening. He used this to write a very long letter to his lover Lord Alfred
Douglas (about a third of this letter, with the long and highly
contradictory complaints removed, was published as "De Profundis"). But it
was only after his release that he was able to transform the sorry mess
into great art, a ballad about a trooper who was hanged while he was in

He did not wear his scarlet coat
For blood and wine are red
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead
The poor dead woman that he loved
And murdered in their bed

It's all there: the blue coat of the trooper is now red, Christ transforms
blue water into red wine at Canaa, wine is transformed into blood before
Gethsemane and Golgotha, and even the main complaint Wilde has against
Douglas in "De Profundis", which is that "each man kills the thing he loves
but each man does not die" is changed into "murdered in their bed". But the
very first step in this transsubstantiation of mere suffering into great
art happens in the very first word, where Wilde begins with "he" instead of

Of course it's possible to use your personal misery to create great art.
But it's hard, for (at least) three reasons. First of all, it's hard to
stand back and let the material alone rather than try to whip it into
shape. Second, it's hard to reconcile the sense that your pain is the one
and only and incomparable and ineffable and the sense that you are at the
same time everywoman. Thirdly, pain is debilitating: it withers your
embrace right at the very moment when you need to reach out, makes you
unfit for companionship right when you need it most, fills your mouth with
incoherent screams precisely when you most need the precision of words to
convey what you are feeling to others. On top of that, as Vygotsky says,
really good art is not the contagion of feeling: it's the individuation of
social emotion and not the socialization of individual emotion.

The unmotivated reconciliation that ends "Lemonade" is deus ex machina,
i.e. both unartistic and unrealistic. Either it was manufactured for mass
market consumption, or the raw emotion that preceded it was. Or both.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 11:05 AM, Greg Mcverry <jgregmcverry@gmail.com>

I would have to agree with Andy on the co-evolution of the tools. To
separate one as developing phylogenetically as ontogenetically seems false.
Could one argue that agriculture was a pre-cursor to formal writing systems
but sign systems evolved as a form of communication long before? I am not a
cultural anthropologist. I really do not know if there has been a writing
system developed in a hunting and gathering culture.

Yet that does not mean those same cultures were not ripe with sign systems
and meaning makings.

I think the mediation and differentiation of tools coevolving is even more
stark when we consider the age of the web. For the first 25 years of the
web the people building the web were also doing their own identity work.
People that hung out on the the Well, Usenets, chat rooms. xmca listservs,
etc were defining the tools in a way to help define themselves. Here is
agreat piece by Ben Werdmuller reflecting on how his tool development could
not be separated from his own ontological development:

In terms of Beyonce. Whether you call it a mediating activity or a mediated
activity. I am not sure it matters. The point is to be a force. For those
not in the states her latest release has been seen as a call to women of
color. Her Super Bowl performance was both celebrated and vilified.

I haven't heard Lemonade yet ( I suffer from severe pop culture deficit)
but I hear it getting talked about all over the web. I wonder how Hegel
would think of something like the web where the culture is both affected by
market pressures but not limited to any one national identity. Is the web
the world spirit?

On Mon, May 2, 2016 at 8:44 PM Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:

I think the evidence is in that speech and labour (i.e.,
tool-use) co-evolved, but writing came a whole epoch later.
I do not think it is a sustainable "developmentalist" point
of view that a form of activity can first be differentiated
and then be mediated: the mediation and the differentiation
co-evolve (so to speak). That's the whole point.

On my update to:

I never claimed that Vygotsky only got his Hegel through
Marx: his knowledge of Hegel was mediated through a number
of sources (including Lenin and Engels and probably
Plekhanov, followers of Deborin and Lewin). The correction
you referred to was my admission that the passage you drew
my attention to in HDHMF I had overlooked in my catalogue,
and that it had to be included with the one or two other
allusions which seem to have come from a reading of the
section of Hegel's Subjective Spirit named "Psychology".
Someone, c. 1931, drew his attention to these passages.
There are other passages of The Subjective Spirit which
would have been of great interest to Vygotsky and would
certainly have been appropriated if he had ever read them,
but he hadn't, far less the Logic (though he had studied
Lenin's Annotations on the Logic) or the Phenomenology,
which no Marxist or Psychologist read in the period of his

Is it time yet, David, for you to make a correction to your
claim that the Vygotsky archive would eventually turn up
Vygotsky's annotations on the Phenomenology?


Andy Blunden

On 3/05/2016 9:00 AM, David Kellogg wrote:

You and I both come out of the pugilistic left, and
we live in a country where socks are considered formal
apparel. So I imagine that no question mark is required to
start a discussion; nor pulling of punches to finish one.

I think I made the case that the distinction was pretty
useful, at least to Beyoncé fans--if not, see Vygotsky's
conclusion to Chapter Two of HDHMF, where he points out
that the precise nature of the relationship of signs and
tools needs to be worked out yet, but in any case that
relation is indirect; it MUST pass through a
super-category he calls MEDIATING activities. For YOU and
for HEGEL, all activity can be said to be both mediating
and mediated, but this is a non-developmental point of
view: for a developmentalist, one must perforce be
differentiated first. Phylogenetically, it seems likely
that tools were differentiated before signs, but
ontogenetically it is usually the other way around.

What really IS academic in the extreme is your
own distinction between "really quoting" Hegel and
quoting Hegel in a footnote to Marx academic. It's also
quite unprovable. By the way, this might be a good place
to acknowledge the corrections you have recently made to
your assertion that every single Hegel reference you have
found in Vygotsky's work can be found verbatim in Marx.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Mon, May 2, 2016 at 12:00 PM, Andy Blunden
<ablunden@mira.net <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:

     I didn't see a question mark anywhere David, but (for
     reasons of my own) could I just note that Vygotsky is
     not really quoting Hegel, but rather quoting Marx
     quoting Hegel's Shorter Logic in an author's footnote
     to /Capital/. Marx puts an interesting twist on the
     point Hegel is making in the original. I think it is a
     twist which preserves Hegel's meaning, but it is
     really the opposite of what Hegel is saying.

     By "the cunning of Reason" Hegel means how History and
     social processes in general unfold according to their
     own logic, irrespective of the intentions of their
     human actors. Marx twists this to make the point that
     natural objects act according to human purposes, not
     their material properties as such.

     I agree that when Hegel is talking about human
     affairs, "Spirit" means "Activity", but of course
     unlike Marx, Hegel deifies Spirit. For Marx, men make
     history, only not under conditions of their own
     choosing. For Hegel, men are mere tools of the
     Weltgeist (world spirit).

     I was able to grasp the distinction between mediating
     and mediated activity, though given that all activity
     is mediated and all activity is mediating, the
     distinction strikes me as academic in the extreme. I
     remain to be convinced that Hegel knoew of any such

     The paragraph following the note on "cunning of
     Reason" in the Shorter Logic is an interesting one:

     TheRealised Endis thus the overt unity of subjective
     and objective. It is however essentially
     characteristic of this unity, that the subjective and
     objective are neutralised and cancelled only in the
     point of their one-sidedness, while the objective is
     subdued and made conformable to the End, as the free
     notion, and thereby to the power above it. The End
     maintains itself against and in the objective: for it
     is no mere one-sided subjective or particular, it is
     also the concrete universal, the implicit identity of
     both. This universal, as simply reflected in itself,
     is the content which remains unchanged through all the
     three/termini/of the syllogism and their movement.


     Andy Blunden
     http://home.mira.net/~andy <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy>

     On 2/05/2016 9:03 AM, David Kellogg wrote:

         I'm reading a chapter by Janette Freidrich in the
         collection "Vygotski
         maintenant" published in 2011. It's an imaginary
         dialogue between Buhler
         and Vygotsky on the former's theory of language
         and the latter's criticisms
         thereof, very cleverly written in INDIRECT SPEECH
         so that Friedrich doesn't
         have to waste time trying to imitate the voice of
         each or pretend that she
         knows the exact wording of each argument.
         Friedrich begins with Hegel's
         distinction (from the LONGER Logic, the one that
         I've never read) between
         mediating activity and mediated activity.

         Mediating activity is what Vygotsky talks about
         using the quote from Hegel
         in HDHMF Chapter Two: it's when your role is
         essentially bystanding, when
         you use one force of nature, more or less in the
         natural state, against
         another.For example, you arrange the downspout of
         your house roof gutters
         so that it bores a hole in a piece of limestone.
         Or you hang your wet
         laundry on a tree branch and let the sun dry it
         out instead of trying to
         wring it dry yourself..

         Mediated activity is in some ways the same, but in
         others completely
         opposite. It's the same in that you are using one
         natural force against
         another, but it's opposite in the sense that your
         role is not bystanding;
         you are yourself one of the forces of nature. For
         example, instead of
         arranging the downspout, you make a chisel or a
         drill of some kind to bore
         a hole in a piece of limestone and sculpt it into
         a flagstone or a
         tombstone. Or you beat the laundry dry with a tree
         branch instead of just
         hanging it there.

         Friedrich points out that in Vygotsky's early work
         (e.g. "The History of
         the Crisis") Vygotsky speaks of psychic tools--he
         is treating ALL activity
         as "mediated" rather than mediating. But in HDHMF,
         we know that he
         CRITIQUES this point of view, precisely because it
         equates the sign and the
         tool. Now, you might think that the sign even more
         like mediated activity
         and even less like mediating activity than the
         tool. After all, sign users
         are not bystanders; they are even more intimately
         and intensively and
         deliberately involved as subjects than tools. But
         that confuses the sign
         user with the sign itself. It also ignores a key
         difference between
         mediating activity and mediated activity--which is
         that in mediating
         activity the force of nature is allowed to act
         according to its own
         properties. When I use a word, I do not try to
         transform it from a sound
         into something else; or rather, if I do, then I
         get something that is less
         obviously language and more like onomatopoeia.

         While I read, I am listening to Beyoncé's new
         album "Lemonade", which is an
         attempt to take a force of nature (the sour lemons
         of a husband's
         infidelity) and to transform it into something
         larger than life or twice as
         natural (the eponymous lemonade). It's an uneasy
         cross between a mediating
         activity ("for colored girls who have considered
         suicide | when the rainbow
         is enuf", where 20 imaginary characters are used
         and Ntozake Shange simply
         stands back) and a mediated one ("Black Macho and
         the Myth of Superwoman",
         where Michelle Wallace tries to use her own
         experiences alongside a
         traditional academic approach). Beyoncé can't
         quite figure out whether she
         wants to do this as a mediating choreographer for
         an ineffable everywoman
         or as a mediated activity by the one and only
         Pasha Bey.

         David Kellogg
         Macquarie University

Status: O