[xmca] belatedly on Wells' article

From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke who-is-at umich.edu>
Date: Sat Oct 13 2007 - 20:01:24 PDT

After a way-too-busy last several weeks, I've finally caught up with
reading a lot of xmca posts, and especially those about Gordon Wells'
article on discoursing as an operational mediation of activities.

I generally agree with Gordon's point of view, but with some
exceptions and a few shifts in conceptual framework. As this was
obviously a very complex topic, I'm just going to make a few points
here and attach the notes I wrote to myself to articulate my own
position in more detail.

We surely do need better ways to talk about both the similarities and
the differences in how activity is mediated by talk vs. artifactual
tools. Both are indeed material, and both are, I believe, also
potentially (though tools not always so in practice) semiotic. The
ways in which they are mediational for an activity may be more
constitutive (the activity unthinkable apart from them) or more
optionally instrumental (the activity may be clumsy or fail without
them, but can be imagined without them). Signs are one kind of tool.
Or better said, I think, material objects or material processes (like
phonation) can be used-as-tools-in-activity, and are not
tools-as-such except when used-as-tools-in-activity, and likewise for
tools that are (or are also) used-as-signs-in-activity. The special
character of sign-use distinguishing it from non-semiotic tool-use
has to do with the difference between the material
affordances-for-use of tool-qualities as such and the possible social
meanings of those qualities and ways-of-using. This is key and
complex, and it's the main subject of the attached notes.

I am not so clear about Gordon's proposal to take talk-in-activity as
operation-level in Leontiev's sense. I've always thought that there
have to be more than just three levels in the analysis of an
activity, even if the relations between operations and actions, vs.
the different kinds of relations between actions and activities, are
key to understanding the possible types of relations among the many
levels. Within talk, there are already many levels, articulating
among themselves in both the sound-to-word way and in the
sentence-to-paragraph way (cf. 'double articulation' in classic
linguistic theory). And between talk and larger activities in which
it is embedded and for which it is constitutive or instrumental to
some degree, there are also multiple levels of (or links in a chain
of) interpretance, ala Peirce. More on this in the notes.

I've always appreciated Gordon's dialogical version of Engestrom's
triangles, based on his reading of Bakhtin (with which I mainly
agree). But I wonder if in this formulation we don't somewhat
background a key element of the top triangle -- that the use of
mediational means is a digression, or displacement, from direct
subject-on-object or here subject-on-subject action? It's a different
activity with the mediation of tool or sign than without it, even if
the same goal is reached. In the subject-on-subject version, while we
can and should pay attention to the emergence of joint goals and
outcomes, or on the conflict of goals, etc., I think the core issue
is linguistic manipulation and control as a displacement from direct
physical manipulation and control (though clearly we often do both,
and this may be especially important in early development, as it is
in learning/teaching bike riding, etc.). But we also need to think
about how language, or sign-use in general, serves to directly
influence the Other, and how it differs from, say, pushing them
bodily or hitting them with a stick (tool). Differs both for the
better, and for the worse, in terms of power and control, or
resistance. My sense is that there is a lot in this more
uncomfortable aspect of linguistic mediation to help us understand
how and why signs are used in joint activity. Historically, not all
joint activity has been voluntary.

I apologize for the occasional opacity of the attached notes where
they reflect my inner-speech.


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

Tel. 734-763-9276
Email. JayLemke@UMich.edu
Website. <http://www.umich.edu/~jaylemke%A0>www.umich.edu/~jaylemke

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Received on Sat Oct 13 20:07 PDT 2007

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