bodies, matter, action, and meaning

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Fri Jun 11 2004 - 10:00:59 PDT

NOTE -- accidentally sent this yesterday from the wrong email account, so
it did not make it onto xmca.

I've been locked away while developing some new research plans, but very
interested in the recent threads on habitus and externalization and the
various kinds of research people have mentioned linked to them.

It seems there are now a lot of people, coming from several different
traditions, who are trying to make sense of the bodily and material basis
of meaning making, particularly in situated action and interaction.

This is what Thibault is up to in his new book (I've read drafts of
chapters), and just about everyone mentioned here in the last several days.
It seems to be an issue and an approach that comes into focus periodically,
but has not quite stuck, or not quite made it to the mainstream of theory
and research, much less popular understanding.

LSV, Luria, Leontiev all put it forward that it was what we did -- actions,
gestures, uses of artifacts -- that enabled us to do what they counted as
the higher (or evolutionarily later) psychological functions: planning,
self-regulation, goal-oriented activity, meaning-making, etc. But because
the most central of these actions was speech: the use of material,
externalized vocal gestures and culturally meaningful articulate
soundstreams ... a phenomenon of exactly the same kind ... it was all too
easy for more idealist, mentalist notions of "language" as a formal, not a
material, system to lead the way back to the more ideologically palatable
view that higher psychological functions were mental processes, only
trivially material, and far more "internal" than external. (Semiotics, I am
sorry to say, and contrary I think to Peirce's better instincts, also
became a tool for re-formalizing and re-idealizing the non-linguistic
mediational means as well. Thibault has an earlier book on Saussure that is
relevant to this point.)

Then Bourdieu's "habitus" theory again tried (in his earliest theoretical
work, not much developed thereafter) to say that such "higher functions" as
_judgment_ (it trivializes his point, even in _Distinction_, to call it
"taste" ... he is partly trying to re-write Kant) are _embodied_
dispositions. His paradigm and model was Marcel Mauss' views of body
"hexis": culturally specific ways of moving the body; his favorite early
example was gameplay by soccer players. But again, this emphasis has been
lost in most use of his work (even a lot of his own), as habitus becomes
again some interior, mental-affective notion like "taste" or "preference",
associated with class differences ... rather than a notion that our bodies
are conditioned by the actions typical in the lifeways of our social
condition to more or less spontaneously re-act in certain ways typical of
those who largely shared our conditions and modes of action. B's notion is
even explicitly developmental, something acquired as part of our learning
to regulate our action and behavior (unconsciously) in the ways typical of
our culture and community.

It is quite amazing the resistance you will find even today among linguists
to the notion that gesture and speech are part of a single system of action
and meaning-making, integrated as well in their communicative functions.
(Ron Scollon has such a view, so do Kress & van Leeuwen.) Or even moreso to
extending this system, and therefore the basic units of analysis and
explanation, to include use of artifacts, learned perceptual gestalts (cf.
Goodwin's "professional vision" or Hutchins many examples), body movements,
interactional synchronies (between interactants' body movements and
speech/vocal gestures) ... or writing and sketching. Why the resistance
when it makes such obvious sense? Because it challenges the dominant
paradigm that meaning-making capacities arise from systems of formal
relations (grammars, semantic systems), which are just the stuff of
idealist anti-materialism, just the view that is needed to allow the basis
of the higher functions to remain mental, interior, and immaterial.

I assume I don't need to make the further connection of idealist-mentalism
to ideologies of mind-over-muscle, or masculine rationality over feminine
body-affect, which situate the resistance to bodily-material views of
meaning-making, judgment, intelligence, etc. in their larger political context.

But it does look like we have another chance right now ... and it's
interesting to try to figure out why. My guess is that it has to do with
the "cyborg" paradigm: that our current Faustian program for the
augmentation of human power is by creating closer connections to our
machines, to seeing ourselves as more closely integrated with them. On the
one hand this has bred the notion that computers think just like we do (and
led to cultural shifts trying to make us think more like they do), to make
the idea of close and pervasive integration more plausible. But on the
other hand it has also allowed us to rethink how we in fact do use tools
as part of meaning-making, with our own bodies as tool-number-one. I'm not
saying I'm happy with the cyborg paradigm -- it too serves interests I
don't identify with -- but I think it has re-opened the door once again for
more material accounts of meaning.


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Nov 09 2004 - 11:42:57 PST