RE: [xmca] Stetsenko- Material practice, human subjectivity, intersubjectivity

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun Nov 06 2005 - 23:15:41 PST

Sasha suggests that Anna Stetsenko's paper
blunders when it describes and analytically
distinguishes three processes, which I will refer
to here as the socio-economic, the socio-cultural, and the subjective.

Sasha says, for example:
"Social relations according to Marxist (and CHAT)
tradition have to be comprehended as derivative
forms from human's material production of their
life. So we can hardly estimate "the collective
exchanges and material production" as two-fold system of interactions."

I see this a little differently. On this item, I
agree with AS more than Sasha. I think this
concept may be one of the virtues, not one of the
faults or blunders, of this paper. I think we
can use this "twofold system" concept of
transitions, and AS's analysis of these three
processes, very effectively - although, with some
clarification. More on that in a moment.

I do agree with Sasha that collective exchanges
(the socio-cultural) have to be understood as a
product or derivative of material production (the
socio-economic). This is surely the classical
Marxist position, and the one often maligned when
it is reduced by anti-Marxists to a one-way,
mechanical paradigm in what is often referred to
by Marxists as "economic determinism".

AS is clearly trying to address this problem
Marxists and CHAT theorists have always faced of
explaining how a socio-economic system both
generates culture and subjectivity and is also
influenced and reproduced by them. I think AS is
largely right - but not completely right - and
possibly on the road to a serious "blunder," to
use Sasha's unkind term - when she explains
that " ... the material production of life
comes, with time, to be increasingly dependent on
the types of social exchanges to which it
initially gave rise. Ultimately, at mature stages
of human civilization, it is not material
production that solely drives human development
but the complex interactions between the two and
the contradictions stemming from these interactions." pg 73.

Where I think AS falls short in this description
is her not affirming, as Marx emphatically did,
that the ruling social classes and institutions
of the existing socio-economic order don't just
"interact" with but come into *mortal conflict*
with the socio-cultural relations (the social
exchanges) that the socio-economic order
ultimately generates, opening up periods of
social revolution when such conflicts break into
the open and masses of people go into opposition
to a society which has become a brake to social
progress. It is often considered polite
in academic circles to leave out references to
uncomfortable topics such as mortal conflict and
social revolution, but I believe this Marxist
theory of inevitable revolutionary conflicts
between the economic and social relations of a
society is indispensable and unavoidable in any
serious discussion of a materialist ontology of human subjectivity.

After all, we live in era of revolution unlike
any before in history, and the social and
historic causes and effects of revolution - and
counter-revolution - must be foremost in our
considerations of how people think, feel and
behave in our world today, in modern history, and
even throughout the stormy millennia of class
society and its perpetual contradictions. This
is my perspective, anyway. I will return to this
concern again at the end, where I bring up the
next sentence in the above-cited passage on pg 73
where I have an even sharper objection to raise.

Going back to Sasha's remarks about "twofold
systems of interactions", I think AS on this
topic is developing a very important insight that
should be affirmed and developed. AS explains in
the following passage this term employed by ANL, "twofold transition":

"The significant shift of balance in
conceptualizing the mind as being chiefly the
product, but not the generator of, and the active
participant, in social practice, is evident also
in the following related aspects of
A.N.Leont’ev's (1983) theorizing. He pays much
more attention to transfers within activity
processes from objective into subjective (p.
125), and employs the notion of a "twofold
transition" (A.N.Leont’ev, 1983, p. 144) as the
central psychological mechanism of human
development. This notion refers to (a) the
transition from the world into the process of
activity and (b) the transition from activity to
its subjective product­human subjectivity. The
possibility of a manifold transition is not
elaborated with the same rigor." (pg77)

Several important themes of AS's paper are
reflected in the above passage. First, she
affirms the concept of levels of human existence
- of levels of human activity - as generators of
and products of one another. Second, she speaks
of transitions or transfers between these levels
of activity. Third, she speaks of these
transitions as being mechanisms of human
development. Fourth, she criticizes Leont'ev
*not* for employing these concepts, but doing so
in only a one-sided and unidirectional way.

I believe that an underlying theme of AS's paper
is the argument that human activity can be
understood within the framework of a three-fold
system of transitions, themselves understood
within a four tiered or leveled conceptualization
of human existence. Speaking
genetico-historically, and following the
traditional Marxist view, the essential order of
transitions she discusses is from nature to
socio-economic activity, from socio-economic to
socio-cultural activity, and from socio-cultural
activity to subjectivity. This sequence itself
could be considered a hot topic for debate,
especially for lines of thinking influenced by
philosophical trends outside the Marxist tradition.

Of course, and this is a major thesis of the
paper, AS goes well beyond just establishing
these levels of reality and transitions and
providing ideas for how they should be termed and
described. She also advances a vigorous argument
for seeing the interaction of these levels and
transitions in a new way - as multidirectional,
manifold, and in what may be her sharpest
challenge to classical Marxist thinking, as being
equal generators of and products of one another.

I am comfortable with the arguments of this paper
for the manifold and multidirectional character
of the relations between these levels of activity
- until we get to the part about subjectivity
being "on a par" (see page 86) with
socio-economic and socio-cultural activities, and
then I find myself hearing some alarms go off. I
suspect that others such as Sasha that have
written critical remarks about this paper are
also responding to such internal alarms. My
concern, in responding to these concerns, and
employing the critical method AS herself employs
and advocates, is that we avoid throwing out any babies with the bath water.

With that in mind, I think it is fair to say that
AS is largely correct in what she is trying to
do. The highly complex cause and effect
relationships between these ontological tiers of
human existence - nature, the socio-economic, the
socio-cultural and the subjective (essentially,
the psychological) - most certainly must be
understood more thoroughly, beginning with
viewing these tiers and their transfers and
transitions as manifold and
multi-directional. In a phrase, the subjective
has indeed gotten short shrift in CHAT, and AS's
paper shows us a way forward. I think AS offers
compelling arguments for ways to correct past
theoretical gaps and offers useful
re-conceptualizations to see fundamental relationships more dialectically.

However, and this is where my own alarms go off,
this dialectical relationship is not a
dialectical relationship among "equals." These
levels are not "on a par" with one another nor
are they "equally necessary" in the full meaning
of necessity. As "undemocratic" and cold-hearted
as this may sound to some, especially those that
are attracted to the relativist thinking
associated with post-modernism, the subjective
moods and conditions of people, in my opinion, do
not have an equal cause and effect relationship
to the course of history alongside the
socio-economic order or even the socio-cultural
relations and institutions generated by a socio-economic order.

The subjectivity of people, especially masses of
people, in extraordinary times can and do change
the course of history, but not in the same way or
with the same causal necessity that the forces of
production determine the social relations of a
society day after day, which in turn and in
combination with the economic forces generate the
subjective processes individuals experience and
also act upon, hour after hour. I believe it is
a methodological and ontological error to place
an equal sign between these entities - the
socio-economic, the socio-cultural, and the
subjective - by making claims that they are "on a
par." They each play fundamentally different
roles when making history and are made by history
in fundamentally different ways.

There is a genetic-historic sequence and priority
to the causality and necessity of the
socio-economic and the socio-cultural in relation
to the subjective, just as there is also such a
genetic-historic sequence and priority of
causality and necessity between the categories
Sasha touches on in a very interesting section of
his post, where he talks about the mechanical,
the chemical, and the organic. It is precisely
ontological disputes over the order of these
emergent levels of existence and the
genetic-historic cause and effect relationships
between them that defines the polar opposites of
philosophy, materialism and idealism (and also
defines the assorted currents that try to merge
the two). Most serious philosophical trends,
materialist, idealist, and in between, that are
in business today tend to agree that the
mechanical-physical-chemical properties of matter
and energy precede the organic forms that they
take, and in turn, these organic forms are a
prerequisite and necessary foundation of, say,
the social - referring to the social forms of
life that characterize birds, mammals, and most animals.

Materialism has largely won the natural science
half of the debate with idealism. No one
seriously debates whether God created the Big
Bang - now it is whether extra-dimensional
universes or "branes" collide to create such
births - or whether life on earth evolves - now
it's whether certain life forms and organs
are "intelligently designed". The principle of
"manifold transitions" or "emergent ontological
levels" discussed above applies very much to the
physical, the organic, and the social. Natural
science for the most part today seems to be
converging over complex dynamic systems
explanations of how nature and life evolve,
explanations that involve using precisely such concepts and principles.

The "intelligent design" debate is an attempt to
slow this converging march of science down -
something the creationist reactionaries are
correct to be worried about. The big threat is
that as a result of this convergence of
scientific ideas in natural science, the
principles of physics, chemistry and biology are
more and more being applied to development and
history, and that is indeed a fundamental
challenge to anti-materialist, anti-humanist, and
other obscurantist ideological trends. But even
among the adherents of scientific approaches to
human development, there is still much heat and
controversy over specific issues of human
evolution and history (something the creationists
also try to exploit). For example, the
discussions of how to conceptualize the causes
and effects of humanity's rise from being merely
a physical, organic and social primate to a
socio-economic-cultural-psychological species -
and how and why humanity has evolved the way it
has from hunting and gathering tribes to
capitalist nation-states - (both are discussions
of transitions of enormous importance to human
history) - splits every scientific-minded
tendency in every philosophical direction, with
all the old debates between materialism and
idealism repeating themselves anew.

As I look over the paper, I believe AS's emphasis
on the principle of object-relatedness is
designed to squarely address these materialist
considerations and offer new ways of reinforcing
the materialist pole in socio-philosophic debate.
This principle does appear to be an effective
theory tool to help us see and explain how social
being determines consciousness at every
step. AS's paper argues that at every level of
human activity, from its rise from animalness to
the subjective sides of a modern artist, human
consciousness is object related. I like this
principle and this method of reasoning and see it
as an effective way of conceptualizing and
applying the CHAT approach to human activity, both collective and individual.

Andy Blunden's implications that AS's paper leans
toward purely idealist conceptions of human
consciousness which he satirizes with references
to telepathy are in my opinion off base. To the
contrary, AS places CHAT on an even more firm
materialist grounding by emphasizing and
re-establishing the importance of Leont'ev's
principle of object-relatedness and expanding its
application to the realm of human subjectivity.

But the principle of object-relatedness does not
in and of itself maintain that economic activity
and relations are always somehow equal in causes
and effects to subjective activities in human
affairs, as AS appears to argue in her
paper. Nor does the principle of "emergent
ontological levels" imply an "equality" between
these generated tiers of human existence or those
of natural existence. Saying these different
levels are "dialectically interrelated," that
they "co-evolve," that they are "interconnected"
etc. etc. points to important truths about their
relationships, but none of these descriptions, in
my view, imply the conclusion that there is an
"equality" of necessity or causality between them.

So I think AS may be overstating her case and
possibly succumbing to some of her own
"rhetorical goals" (as she tactfully puts it in
the paper when she discusses certain aspects of
writings from previous generations of the CHAT
school) in her comparison of say socio-economic
activity to subjective activity as being "on a
par". I am guessing here, but I wonder if the
equality she is advocating is not an ontological
perspective at all, but rather a plea for
expanding CHAT research priorities to more
aggressively include human subjectivity as a
vital part of analyses of human activity.

Let me sum up by returning to the place I began,
picking on a passage from Sasha's post where he
says "we can hardly estimate "the collective
exchanges and material production" as two-fold
system of interactions." I suggest, following
AS's description of it, that the idea of "twofold
transitions" is indeed highly applicable to
developing a materialist conceptualization of
human activity, from nature to socio-economic to
socio-cultural to subjectivity. AS's explanation
indicates that Leont'ev was on the right track,
but the concept needs to be expanded. The
expansion to Leont'ev's concept of transitions
that AS urges is to see not just "two"
transitions, but a *chain* of transitions (i.e.,
"manifold" transitions). Moreover, as AS also
stresses, these transitions are not just one-way
and unidirectional - they are
*multidirectional*. In this conceptualization,
three ontological tiers of human activity - the
socio-economic, the socio-cultural, and the
subjective - along with transitions and transfers
between them - become important tools of
theoretic thinking and analysis. Moreover, on
each one of these levels and in every case, human
activity is always object related. There are a
number of refreshing, reinforcing and useful
ideas being proposed in this paper.

At the same time, I do have some
reservations. As explained, I find myself taking
some distance from AS's phraseology that these
transitions and the mechanisms or ontological
levels of activity that generate them should be
seen as "equally necessary" and "on a par" with
one another (pg 86). As a suggestion for better
research priorities, this formulation may make
sense, but ontologically and methodologically, such a notion is erroneous.

I also have problems - possibly sharp problems -
with a questionable revision of Marxist sociology
that AS may be leaning toward, where she implies
that socio-cultural relations and institutions in
mature societies eventually become the
determining factor over the forces and relations
of material production. When she says "the
social-institutionalized forms of life, with
time, gain such importance and complexity that
they come to permeate all aspects of human life,
and ultimately shape the very material production
that initially gave rise to a certain society"
(pg 73) she comes dangerously close to making a
statement that suggests a socio-economic system
can reform itself by improving on its social
relations and institutions, eventually
"reshaping" the social system accordingly - a
position in sharp contrast to the social analysis
- and subjective outlook :-)) - of Marx and
Engels, and the people that led the October Revolution.

- Steve

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