Re: [xmca] Actants, Greimas, Levi-Strauss

From: Martin Packer <packer who-is-at>
Date: Wed Jul 11 2007 - 14:11:41 PDT


I think the emphasis I've placed on agency and spontaneity is creeping in
from outside this discussion. I will try to explain - but if this is too far
off the topic please feel free to ignore it.

Let me start with the emphasis that Vygotsky places on the developmental
achievement of 'mastery' of self. Scientific thinking is 'deliberately'
using attention to pick out relevant dimensions to form a concept, for
example. Much more should be said, but let me change direction for a moment.

We've talked a lot in this forum about avoiding dualism. We usually describe
this as Descartes' mind-world dualism (or mind-body if you prefer). But a
number of people have argued that the dualism more characteristic of the
modern world is Kant's dualism of person-as-subject and person-as-object. In
sociology at least this shows up as the well-known agency/structure
dichotomy. Am I a free agent, acting as I wish, or are my actions determined
by the social structures (culture) in which I live? 'Micro'-sociologists are
accused of assuming the former, 'macro'-sociologists of assuming the latter.
This dualism has been described as the "age-old conundrum" of sociology, a
"core enigma" that "every theory of order has to deal with." And so we find
a variety of attempts to 'bridge the gap' (putting micro-interaction in
broader context, for example), as well as attempts to resolve it
conceptuality (Giddens' notion of 'duality' rather than 'dualism';
Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field, related relationally rather than
in opposition).

What I'm starting to learn is that this gap between agency and structure is
not (merely) a conceptual problem. It is an empirical, that is to say
historical and cultural, reality. One might say that it is a political
problem, not a theoretical one. What I mean by this is that the degree to
which, and manner in which, one can exercise agency within existing social
structures varies considerably. Most of us in XMCA probably experience a
good deal of agency, but probably we're in the minority. The opportunity to
be 'an agent' is socially conditioned.

Which brings us back to Vygotsky. Remember the 'gap' between stimulus and
response which provides the place where thought can begin? The emphasis on
language as a mediator by means of which to achieve self-mastery? This is,
isn't it, the emancipatory effort to *open up* a gap between necessity and
freedom, between agency and structure - really, to *foster* agency where
there was none (or less) before. (And I think of Habermas suggesting that
emancipation is a praxis in which "the subject frees itself from a state in
which it had become an object for itself.")

Your Tai Chi experience? I would interpret that as learning to get the
calculating agent out of the way and so allow the body to respond
spontaneously and show a different kind of intelligence and expertise. Which
suggests the tantalizing prospect that what counts as 'mastery' varies from
one culture to another. That Vygotsky was operating within a western focus
on instrumental action and control, while a Sufi 'master' is offering...
well, something very different.

All this is obviously not even in the oven, let alone half baked. But


On 7/11/07 3:22 PM, "Paul Dillon" <> wrote:

> Martin,
> I'm curious about the notion of "spontaneous agency" and "spontaneous
> action" . I imagine these are to be distinguished from "planned" or
> "premeditated" actions". Also spontaneity is associated with free action too.
> But doesn't "agency" always imply some subject who is the agent? Can their
> be an unconscious agent? I think this has something to do with the different
> stages of learning where each successive level, once learned, no longer needs
> directed attention. But sometimes there isn't any real realtionship between
> what one has learned and the kind and the kinds of 'spontaneous responses"
> that seem to be developed. For example, about six months after I had begun
> practicing tai chi under the guidance of a very good sifu, my reactions to
> falling objects became almost instantaneous, without any conscious
> intervention. My hand would just move and catch things that had been knocked
> over. In the tai chi workouts we never practiced catching falling objects or
> even worked on any kind of quick movements such as those I began to
> experience. Who exactly was the agent of these actions? Maybe this ties
> into your point that there is much more to the body than the brain, the hand,
> and
> upright posture.
> Paul
> Martin Packer <> escribió:
> Certainly there are many social practices that discipline the body and that
> punish by limiting both impulsive action and spontaneous agency. Norbert
> Elias apparently (in The Civilizing Process, 1978) suggested that the
> distinction between self and reality is the experienced muscular tension
> induced by the various social constraints over spontaneous action. It might
> be argued, I think, that the interest that cultural psychology has shown in
> the biological evolution of the human species has been focused on just a few
> relevant aspects: on the brain, primarily, and then the hand and upright
> posture. These is much more to the body that these.
> Martin
> On 7/10/07 6:37 PM, "Paul Dillon"
> wrote:
>> And even the individual dying of terminal diseases in great pain is denied
>> the
>> right to do away with the body. But ownership implies among other things that
>> one has the right to dispose with it as one pleases.
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