[xmca] Emotion at Work

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at mira.net>
Date: Tue Jul 24 2007 - 00:42:01 PDT

Here are some thoughts on your paper Wolf-Michael:

Wolf-Michael's abstract is marvellous. If this project could be fulfilled
it would indeed justify being seen as working towards a 'third generation':

      Second-generation cultural-historical activity theory,
      which drew its inspiration from Leont'ev's work, constituted
      an advance over Vygotsky's first-generation theory by
      explicitly articulating the dialectical relation between
      individual and collective. As part of an effort to develop
      third-generation-historical activity theory, I propose in this
      article a way in which emotion, motivation, and identity can be
      incorporated into the theory. ...

I love the practical work that Wolf-Michael reports, too, as the local
union rep. at work for most of my life I know these characters and
situations all too well. It is great though that the epilogue seems to show
a positive outcome.

That said, I think there a number of serious problems with the general
propositions that Wolf-Michael puts forward.

On page 44 Wolf-Michael claims:

      "Consciousness, motivation, and identity are subordinated to
      orientation and emotional readiness because, from evolutionary
      and cultural-historical perspectives, the latter predate the
      former (Damasio, 1999)."

I am really not sure what is entailed in being "subordinated," so my
response must be qualified in that respect. But it reeks of a dreadful
positivism. There is no logical basis for the general claim that the
historically or phylogenetically later is "subordinated" to the earlier.
Does it mean that the aeroplane must be subordinated to the horse-and-cart
and civilization subordinated to jungle life? Modern life arises on the
basis of rational institutions unknown to animals. To claim that
civilisation is subordinated to animal life reeks of Konrad Lorenz, Desmond
Morris and Robert Ardrey.

Is it that identity (for example) "builds on" orientation and emotional
readiness? Yes, but identity _transcends_ the animal functions of
orientation and emotional readiness, doesn't it? The aeroplane utilises the
laws of physics, but it also _flies_. So why do we say that the animal
functions "subordinate" the higher functions?

In fact I have a problem I think with Wolf-Michael's conception of
identity. Wolf-Michael goes on:

      "Identity and motivation are _effects _of the psychic life
      of human beings, which require consciousness and collectively
      organized activity and became possible at the dawn of
      anthropogenesis, when human subjects found themselves as
      subjects, separate from other material things and fellow
      human beings (RicŠur, 1990; Roth, 2006b)."

I question here the idea of individuality (if I understand Wolf-Michael
correctly) being placed "at the dawn of anthropogenesis," the implication
that "subject" is more or less synonymous with individual, and the omission
of material culture from the list of pre-requisites for identity and

Now, I would have thought that "identity" and subjectivity arise prior to
individuality, at the beginning of anthropogenesis, only it would not have
been _individual_ identity or individual subjectivity. Pre-modern human
beings act on the basis of an identity tied up with their land, their
social position, threats to their kin, and so on, in other words, with the
forms of activity by which people live. Isn't it more consistent with CHAT
to suppose that individuality is a later construct of the differentiation
of subjectivity?

Material culture is of course something which is not found amongst the
animals, and I think it is fair to say that material culture is central to
the formation of identity and _all _aspects of the psychic life of human
beings. And what does it mean in this context to describe identity and
motivation, which are surely psychic phenomena, as being "effects" of
psychic life? Wolf-Michael distinguishes between psychic life on the one
hand and consciousness on the other. I can understand this in terms of
"psychic life" being simply the activity of the nervous system, something
found in any organism with a nervous system. Is that right? And
"consciousness" being something that arises, I would have thought, in
connection with the use of material culture used in forms of activity.

On history and philosophy:

      "Thus, as dialectical phenomenological philosophers point out,
      any explication of human consciousness that posits the subject
      to understand consciousness and knowledgeability - as
      philosophers (Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, etc.) and
      psychologists (all but critical psychologists) have done -
      inherently is flawed because it does not take account of
      history, that is, the emergence of the human psyche during
      anthropogenesis (Derrida, 2005; Franck, 2001; Levinas, 1998)."

I hope I can be forgiven for putting in a word for my favourite
philosopher. I think it is a big mistake to include Hegel in this list.
They all have different concepts of the subject of course, but Husserl and
Heidegger share with Kant an individual, subjective concept of the subject
while for Hegel the subject is not at all an individual. I like to describe
Hegel as "the first cultural-historical psychologist" and via Marx he is
the direct progenitor, in my view, of CHAT. And to mention Hegel as "not
taking account of history" is novel. It was Hegel who invented the idea of
importing history into a concept of subjectivity as constructed in social
activity. True, of course, that Hegel knew nothing of "anthropogenesis"; he
thought that the human species was created in a flash of lightning all at
once biologically exactly as they are. He ascribed everything else to
_history and culture_ rather than biology. But then, he died in 1831.
Wolf-Michael continues:

      "This recent work shows how intersubjectivity and subjectivity
      are the _results _of collective life and having a material body,
      which allows the dawning subject, mediated by its embodied and
      bodily nature, to be conscious of itself as but one among a
      plurality of subjects (Nancy, 2000)."

Again, while it seems too obvious to mention that you have to have a
material body before you have psychic activity, isn't it more important to
mention that a material culture is a precondition _characteristic_ of human
life, whereas "having a material body" and "collective life" is equally
true of plankton and grapevines. By the by, it is to Hegel of course that
we owe the idea that self-consciousness arises on the basis of becoming
aware of ones own people as one among a plurality. But Hegel never used the
term "intersubjectivity" because he knew the key role played by material
culture which _mediates_ between subjects. And Hegel was not the last
person to think that material culture plays an important role in human
emotional life, from the patriot's flag to Linus's security blanket to
Donald Winnicott's mother's breast.

But I agree with Wolf-Michael, that understanding human feelings is tied up
with practical social activity and practical reason.

      "Motivation and identity are not independent constructs but are
      derivative, an integral aspect of an activity system in general,
      and emotion - which is centrally involved in the shape of practical
      actions and practical reasons - in particular." {p. 54)

Wolf-Michael, I presume you are using "emotion" in the Damasian sense of
somatic-nervous activity, as distinct from the "interpretation" of emotions
in terms of human feelings, which is derived from the socialisation of the
individual? You mean that only beings with nervous systems, and therefore
emotions, can have motivations? But it is meaningless to mention something
that is a general precondition; why not mention the sun or hydrocarbons?
The question is: what precondition provides the specific character of what
is built upon it? Isn't it the point that motivation is acquired _from the
activity system_, and that it is the activity system which imparts the
specific character to the emotional response of individuals? So I agree
with Wolf-Michael when he says: "Because emotions are an irreducible aspect
of activity, they cannot be claimed to be the cause of other aspects of the
activity." (p. 58) The question really is: should we be regarding the
activity system "coldly"?

On the question of identity, Wolf-Michael says:

      "In the context of cultural-historical activity theory, identity is
      a derivative construct in the sense that it presupposes the
      existence of the subject who, regulated by emotions, engages
      with an object of motive-directed activity, and who becomes aware
      of itself as self. Identity presupposes the presence of memory and
      consciousness (Ricoeur, 2004). The construct of identity pertains
      to who someone is." (p. 56)

I think Wolf-Michael uses the term "subject" here in the Kantian sense, as
the transcendental bearer of individual thoughts and actions. But even in
this sense the claim is tautological, as identity is part of what a subject
is, a subject without a sense of its own identity is unthinkable. With the
Hegelian idea of "subject" being a self-conscious system of activity, it is
still the case that identity is entailed in subjectivity, as is the fact
that the human beings involved have nervous systems. But a system of
activity is not self-conscious from the outset. According to Hegel,
identity is something that arises only at a certain point in the
development of an activity system. But human feelings also arise in just
this way as does the specific character of individual identity, with a
specific character drawn from the system of activity and the forms of
material culture generated in the system of activity. Wolf-Michael goes on:

      "However, we do not know _who _a person is independent of the
      actions of that person. ... attributions about _who _someone _is _
      are made based on observable behavior (actions). Actions that are
      already means of expressing emotions and motivations also come to
      express identities." (p. 56)

I think this is a mistake. Identity is in the first place
_self-_consciousness, that is, how a person sees themself. The whole idea
of the notion of "subject" going back to Aristotle, is that the subject
exists "behind" all its contingent attributes and persists through movement
and change. To claim that identity is derived from attributes is to undo
the very meaning of subject and self-consciousness. Attributes (including
perceived actions) are attributes _of_ a subject, which cannot be reduced
to our experience of it. How we get to know something is not the same as
what it _is_, and a subject does not get to know itself by perceiving it
own actions, rather than mediately through the reactions of _other_ subjects.

The problem of the construct of "cold cognition" is a very real and urgent
problem, but I think Wolf-Michael's treatment of emotion is coming from the
wrong direction. Knowing is also embodied in biology, just as much as
feeling, and feeling is tied up with material culture, thought and social
activity, just as much as knowing.

      "The choices available in, and to, practical reasoning are
      always oriented toward higher emotional valence." (p. 59)

This claim reminds me of Alasdair MacIntyre's discussion of "emotivism" in
ethics, in his book "Beyond Virtue." People do not, like sea urchins, move
up a gradient of gratification, short- or long-term. Why do people go to
war? Because when they die, at least they won't be unhappy? I can't really
see any way that this claim can be distanced from utilitarianism and the
myth of rational economic agents maximising utility. People do things that
they are unhappy about doing, but they do it nonetheless, and citing
deferred gratification just defers the problem.

      "Identity, too, is an integral part of human activity and an effect
      of emotion. Who I am with respect to others and myself is
      fundamentally related to my participation in collective activity
      and to individual and collective emotional valences arising from
       (orientations to) face-to-face interaction with others." (p. 60)

I think this formulation is a little mixed up. The second sentence is
correct, but to claim that identity is an _effect_ of emotion is a kind of
positivism. Emotion is somatic nervous activity and to describe identity as
an effect of this nervous activity begs the question of whether bed bugs
and jelly fish have an identity. If they do, then the whole discussion is
at cross purposes. Systems of self-conscious activity arise only amongst
sentient beings who _have constructed a material culture_, and the specific
character of self-consciousness, feeling and identity arises from the
nature of the activity system and the material culture, utilising _all_
aspects of human biology, inclusive of emotional readiness but also, the
capacities for nutrition, motility, sensation as well.

However, I think Wolf-Michael's observation is very attractive when he says:

      "Third-generation cultural-historical activity theory constitutes
      a suitable framework for understanding the phenomenon of
      collective emotion and its relationship to individual emotion.
      My examples hint at a dialectical relation linking individual
      and collective emotion. The tacit aspects of emotion shape actions,
      which are observed by, and available as resources to, others.
      These others find themselves in emotional states, and
      interpret the actions of others in terms of the emotions
      they express; this interpretation is mediated by the activity
      system that frames the actions. In their own actions, these
      others may express the same emotions, which then gives rise
      to a sense of solidarity, which sustains and fuels individual
      short- and long-term emotional states." (p. 60)

I would suggest that we need to insert material culture into our conception
of how individuals generate emotion in activity systems, and trace how the
participants identify themselves and the system of activity, "buy into" the
emotion, and jointly construct emotional valences meaningful in that system
of activity.


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Received on Tue Jul 24 00:43 PDT 2007

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