I guess for me a subject is a grammatical subject or else a discourse subject (that is, a "speaking subject") and an object is either a grammatical object or a hearer or listener. So that puts me in the semiotic camp rather than the activity theoretic one, though I am willing to accept that the activity theoretic camp probably has a lot more interesting things to say about animals.
But I'm afraid that the way my mind works one example of dialectics (or perhaps I should say "dialogue") is better than a thousand formulae about subjects and objects. Although the water example works pretty well for some problems, it's not clear where the subject or object lie and it's very unclear what the "ZPD" that creates H20 might be. (I resisted Mike's application of the ZPD to evolution, so you can imagine how I feel about this!)
Vygotsky uses the H20 example (which I think he got from Mill) for a rather different purpose, viz. to warn people not to analyze psychological processes into "elements" (hydrogen and water) but instead to look at larger units for explanations.
The advantage of using larger units is not simply that they are more "holistic", which is what Vygotsky's example is usually interpreted to mean. An even more important advantage is that larger units themselves have components. These components can be used to understand the unit, though not, of course, the way that larger units combine into still larger ones (because that would be using elements to understand the whole, a kind of reductionism).
I'm currently trying to get my grad students to funnel their mid-term work into a final exam. For their midterms, they were supposed to analyze a child's game (e.g. a jump-rope jingle, a counting-rhyme, a guessing game, a role play). Because I originally wanted to tackle the formation of gesture and first language, I had introduced "action" and "meaning" as analytical categories.
This is, in a way, dialectical, although it is in Hegel's way rather than in Lord Acton's: random noises and movements are pure (iconic) action, when they are repeated and varied systematically as babbling and gesturing they acquire an (indexical) action/meaning structure, but it is only when they are symbolically fused with thoughts that the ratio can be inverted to meaning/action.
I then tried to move up a step to play itself. Now, to my way of thinking, "action" and "meaning" are okay for understanding gesture formation and maybe even lower levels of (gesture-oriented) play. But they are quite useless in understanding actual classroom games, which are very often introduced as rote practice, evolve into some kind of role activity, and only finish up as rule-based games.
Take for example the following jump-rope game, very loosely translated from Korean:
Fly up, high up
I can fly up
Birds can fly up
So can I!
(Child jumps over the rope)
Fly up, high up
I can't fly up
Pigs can't fly up
Or they die!
(Child goes under the rope, game continues with other animals)
The teacher will want to reconstruct this rather as it may have evolved: listen and repeat (rote practice), then listen and do (you are a bird, you are a pig), then let's play accordign to the rules. But to say that the activity is "mostly action" or "mostly meaning" is not very helpful--it is one thing at the beginning of the activity and quite another at the end.
In contrast, Vygotsky's categories of "imaginary situation" and "abstract rules" really ARE very helpful here. Wittgenstein famously failed to find any ONE quality that all games shared; Vygotsky found TWO--the trick is that one is always dialectically subordinated to the other, and they have an uncanny tendency to change places as the child develops.
In the pre-school child, the imaginary situation is explicit ("Let's play house!") and the abstract rules remain unwritten (though it is an unusual house where Baby cooks dinner for Mommy and Daddy and the dog reads the newspaper). In the school-age child, the situation is exactly inverted--even to play a game like soccer the child must use explicit rules to create an implicit imaginary situation where for some mysterious reason we cannot pick up the ball and simply place it in the goal with our hands.
To me this creates an much more useful dialectic. In the most basic forms of "rote" play (e.g. playing with your food, or playing with your belly button, or playing with your cell phone in class) we find that the "imaginary situation" and the "abstract rules" are an undifferentiated mass--there is neither rule nor situation beyond "repeat-repeat-repeat". But in imaginary play there are explicit (discourse) roles and implicit (quasi-grammatical) rules of order. And in rule-governed play the situation becomes reversed: utterances--real utterances governed by explict rules--are what determine roles.
Looking at the grad's work, I can see that the problem is reductionism--in their analyses they simply bypass the units of "imaginary situation" and "explicit rule". They want to know whether the games are mostly "action" or "meaning"(and they seem to be thinking along the lines of ACTION = MINDLESS EXERCISE, MEANING = LEARNING).
That way lies is worlds away from Vygotsky. "Action" and "Meaning" will tell you a fair amount about babbling and gesture, but I don't see they can explain anything about role play or games. Both have both, and children come chock full of hydrogen and oxygen too.
Seoul National University of Education
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