RE: [xmca] Helena's view of Andy's paper

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
Date: Mon Jan 07 2008 - 18:29:34 PST

I just wanted to respond to your off-hand reference to the "good-enough

                 Does this mean I'm sloppy and content with any "good enough"
                 theory that will fry eggs for me? You know, like the concept
                 of a "good enough" mother?

Now, as a non-professional I am quite unaware of debate there may have been
about this term over the past 30 or 40 years, I only know what I read in
Donald Winnicott's "Playing and Reality" which I thought was the origin of
this phrase. I took his meaning quite differently. I took it that he meant
that if the child is to be weaned and become a person in their own right,
then the requirement on the mother is *not* to perfectly meet the infant's
needs, but on the contrary to be just "good enough" so that the frustration
which arises from the non-perfect meeting of her needs is the beginning of
a process in which the infant begins to work out the nature of objective
reality for itself. I really liked the idea. And surely it is very very
relevant to your work as well.

Just a note on ideographic and nomographic. I responded to Mike on this in
terms of how Hegel responded to Kant. And in those terms your problem with
the reclassified nurses is a classic case of the contradiction between
concept (definition of a nurse) and intuition (the immediate
self-perception of a nurse). That is the terms in which I took it. Do the
nurses need to change the law or should they get used to it?

At 09:54 AM 6/01/2008 -0600, you wrote:
>I did not come out of a educational background that immersed me in the
>kind of theory. My work is very practical. However, I have to use theories
>in order to get anything done, and CHAT and Activity Theory and the
>sociocultural approach generally work for me in ways that other
>theoretical approaches simply do not. I look around in these theoretical
>discussions like someone who is cooking looks for utensils or someone who
>is preparing a legal brief looks for precedents and arguments. The
>question of what the unit of analysis is is very important to me, for
>example -- because when I encounter a complex situation, for example, a
>group of nurses who have, as a result of a bad decision by the National
>Labor Relations Board, have been re-classified as supervisors and lost
>their memberhsip in a bargaining unit with the union protections that go
>along with that, and therefore become "at will" employees -- I need to be
>able to discern what is going on. What is the unit of analysis there? What
>is the activity system?
>Note that I said "group." The collective subject is important to me, too,
>since workers' rights are collective rights. This means I'm not so
>interested in figuring out a way to envision an individual as a unit of
>There has to be something like a rubber band between the actions I take
>while doing labor education (whether it's teaching classes, doing research
>or helping someone one-on-one who is in a bad employment situation or in a
>bad union) and the theory that I go to to use for doing something. I go
>back and forth, back and forth,with the reality testing the theory and the
>theory testing the reality, all the time.If the theory doesn't help, I
>don't use it. If the theory doesn't help, (if the rubber band snaps) I
>don't use it.
>Given the extreme practicality of what I need theories for, there are some
>concepts that just don't help me much. Idiographic/nomothetic is one. I
>have no idea what that means. I know there was some discussion on xmca
>about it, but I skimmed it. Also, purely theoretical discussion that
>appears to swim deeper and deeper into theory rather than connecting back
>across the wall between theory and everyday reality does not help me.
>Does this mean I'm sloppy and content with any "good enough" theory that
>will fry eggs for me? You know, like the concept of a "good enough"
>mother? I don't think so. I think the test of a good theory is its use as
>a tool -- as part of an activity system, maybe one of the cultural
>artefacts that Andy talks about.
>From: [] On Behalf
>Of []
>Sent: Wednesday, January 02, 2008 12:04 PM
>To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>Subject: [xmca] Helena's view of Andy's paper
>Very thoughtful post Helena:
>You have provided me with great understanding of what andy's thesis
>represents. I agree his thinking enriches CHAT but I too get lost in the
>ethereal of his musings : ) My critique of his theory not presenting
>both an idiographic/nomothetic methodology of psychological investigation
>has been stymied by Andy claiming such a critique is a dichotomy and that
>he disavows dichotomies. Any thoughts on this issue?
> "Worthen, Helena
> Harlow" To:
> "" <>, "eXtended Mind,
> <hworthen@ad.uiu Culture, Activity"
> <>
>> cc:
> Sent by: Subject: RE: [xmca]
> Subject: Verb, Object
> xmca-bounces@web
> 12/29/2007 07:37
> PM
> Please respond
> to "eXtended
> Mind, Culture,
> Activity"
>Hello --
>I want to join in with some thoughts on Andy's paper. I've actually read it
>about 3 times and came away with such different thoughts each time that I
>kept losing confidence that I understood what he was getting at.
>I really need some empirical content in a paper like this. When a paper is
>entirely theoretical, I am always asking what a real-life example of
>something would be. This slows me down and distracts me and I'm always
>having to correct myself.
>But here is what I see, on the third try:
>The actual problem is the postmodern condition, which Andy describes (p.
>262) as "There is no identification of the person with the state, or with
>society as a whole or even a class...The endpoint of development is an
>anomic individual who does not see in any institution a representation of
>their own identity and aspiration."
>This is a description of a "subject" (in the sense of an individual) that
>is locked out of culture and society. Locked out whether he is a free agent
>acting on society or a totally determined product of society. This is the
>problem where the paper begins.
>To liberate this "anomic individual", Andy goes back to the foundations of
>CHAT and finds three trichotomies: The CHAT trichotomy (the
>individual/collective subject, culture and society); Hegel's trichotomy of
>the Individual, Particular and Universal, and Vygotsky's individual person,
>element of culture, and activity or material practice.
>Then he proposes a new trichotomy as the unit of analysis: this one is the
>individual, culture and society, all of which is the subject. Andy says
>that the unit of analysis is "the activity of individual human beings
>utilizing artifacts as a means of collaborating with (or fighting with) one
>another (p. 256 in MCA). I'm not sure how this differs from the unit of
>analysis that Jim Wertsch talks about in Vygotsky and the Social Formation
>of Mind, quoting Leont'ev (p. 203 -- "the nonadditive, molar unit of
>life....the unit of life that is mediated by mental reflection") or
>Zinchenko ("tool mediated action" - Wertsch p.205). I don't see these as
>inconsistent with each other. This doesn't bother me -- they enrich each
>But two other pieces of Andy's paper catch my eye. One is the suggestion
>that the commodification of parts of the trichotomy is a way to understand
>the paralysis (anomie?) of the individual in postmodern society. This makes
>sense to me. Think of how the price of access to cultural artifacts
>determines who can use them. I pay $110 per month for my cellphone/internet
>package in Illinois -- how many people can afford that? But that's a key
>artifact with which I engage with my family and my social world. This is
>like the price of accessing myself. Within the subject, as Andy proposes
>it, commodification has intervened to set prices and manage exchanges. Kids
>in rich schools do business plans in math class; kids in poor schools get
>farmed out to "work" trade shows as "interns" -- I'm not kidding. I can
>think of more examples of ways that the essential mediating artifacts of
>culture shape people's activity through their commodification.
>The second is about the view through the scope of Andy's trichotomic unit
>of analysis, individual-culture-society. When all three lenses are lined up
>so that there is one sightline from the individual through what culture is
>available to him (or can be created by him) into the landscape of society
>where he is engaged, it sounds like an adequate description of or account
>of consciousness. We are also shown how sharply different the possibilities
>are for different people and how stark are the differences between what is
>supposed to be out there and what is actually experienced. These are both
>important aspects of consciousness. This seems like something we could come
>back to.
>But I don't accept Andy's view of the world today as adequately described
>by the capitalist postmodern condition. I would say that some -- possibly
>many -- experience their lives that way. I have in my files a handwritten
>10-page autobiography of a young black man who was a death row prisoner in
>Texas, whose story is "I was in the wrong car with the wrong person at the
>wrong time." He died of AIDS before his execution date. Looking out (via
>his autobiography) through the three lenses of Andy's trichotomic unit of
>analysis, you'd have to say he saw nowhere "in any institution a
>representation of [his] own identity and aspiration."
>But just as Andy re-enacts the Battle of Hastings every time he chooses an
>Anglo-Saxon or Latin word in speaking English, every time someone clocks in
>at work or cashes a paycheck (or accepts cash under the table), he
>re-enacts the transition from feudalism to capitalism (or the French
>revolution, or the Flint sit-down, take your pick). It's not surrender,
>it's re-enactment. If you keep in mind that resistance, criticism and
>struggle are also engagement, identity and aspiration, then you don't need
>to unseat postmodernity as the framing context. We can still use the three
>lenses of individual-culture-society as the subject as a unit of analysis
>that enables us to approach consciousness.
>Helena Worthen, Clinical Associate Professor
>Labor Education Program, Institute of Labor & Industrial Relations
>University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
>504 E. Armory, Room 227
>Champaign, IL 61821
>Phone: 217-244-4095
>-----Original Message-----
>From: [] On
>Behalf Of Mike Cole
>Sent: Saturday, December 29, 2007 4:02 PM
>To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
>Subject: Re: [xmca] Subject: Verb, Object
>Leontiev, you mean, Peg. And in the book that David K was reading last time
>(My spelling is attributable to the use of the "whole word" method of
>reading instruction and perhaps
>to the fact that I am left handed. Glad it also pushes at the
>skill/knowledge issue as a bonus.
>I picked on the same phrase Peg did, but mostly the firs part where you ask
>the question of whether
>the object of activity can be defined in advance. This sparked two
>lines of thought. First,
>that Yrjo speaks of the object of activity always being over the horizon.
>Which is related to a line from
>Tennyson's Ulysees quoted by Dewey:
>Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
>Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
>For ever and for ever when I move.I take this metaphor to include listening
>to what other's say and seeing where it leads,
>and to point to a process in time (a developmental process?) by which a
>merely understandable
>motive (having been imagined by others who describe it to you) and a
>effective" motive,
>e.g., one that now guides your action and its (future) direction.
>It also fits with an understanding of the ideal and material aspects of
>objects being wildly interwoven.
>On Dec 29, 2007 8:05 AM, Peg Griffin <> wrote:
> > Interesting work, Andy, thanks for what you have done and pointing to
> > is yet to be done!
> > I am particularly moved to reply to a little point at the end with a
> > question. When discussing immanent critique, you write "But I think we
> > can't
> > define the "object" of activity in advance. To start with, we have to
> > it as a whole. We have to listen to what subjects say and accept to a
> > certain extent what they say the object is, and see where it leads."
> >
> > Here is my question: Do you see here any connection with Leonie's
> > distinction and relation between "really effective" and "merely
> > understood"
> > motives?
> >
> > PG
> >
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: [] On
> > Behalf Of Andy Blunden
> > Sent: Friday, December 28, 2007 6:14 PM
> > To:; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> > Subject: Re: [xmca] Subject: Verb, Object
> >
> > That remark is really to signal that I don't as yet have a worked-out
> > response to the issues David has been raising in relation to ANL's
> > of "activity" only some criticisms of my own. But at the moment, I
> > that "immanent critique" holds the key. Here is how I understand the idea
> > of "immanent critique".
> >
> > "Immanent critique" was first developed by Hegel in his Phenomenology.
> >
> > See
> >
> > where Hegel explains it. The Phenomenology is the canonical example of
> > "immanent critique". Hegel does not back sit back and look at the various
> > forms of consciousness which have succeeded one another in history, and
> > "criticise" tehm from his own superior point of view, but "enters into"
> > them, adopts and follows their logic and asks questions of a way of
> > thinking from its own standpoint. That is, he follows the path of its own
> > critique, until the "ideology" itself leads to an impasse. Subsequently,
> > sometimes after an interval, sometimes directly arising from the
> > self-scepticism, a new way of thinking arises, which is able to cope with
> > or avoid the contradictions into which the previous one fell. And so the
> > process goes on. Americans will recognise shades of Thomas Kuhn here, and
> > we should all recognise Marx's obsession with political economy. (For
> > example, if you look at how capital worked up until 1883, i.e. before
> > Taylor's experiments in scientific management, you will see that Marx's
> > concept of value was just how capitalists worked. Taylor made a critique
> > of
> > this business of lengthening the working day and keeping wages down. Marx
> > was following capital's own critique, but he died in 1883 and his
> > followers
> > didn't know what to do next)
> >
> > So "immanent critique" means critiquing an object by following its own
> > logic:
> >
> > "So my friend you say that ..., so doesn't that mean that ... and
> > didn't you say you were against that?"
> >
> > What does it mean to say that social psychology should adopt "immanent
> > critique" as an approach to defining the subject-object relation and its
> > concept of "activity"? Well, as I said, this is work in progress, OK? But
> > we have to see a subject (its opinions, its strengths, its psychoses, its
> > "standpoint", its identity, etc.) as one of many or several possible
> > subjects which are part and parcel of a certain way of life. The activity
> > which a subject is involved in is defined *by the subject* (and to a
> > certain extent vice versa) and becomes something else as a result of the
> > working out of that system of activity (and the subject's own critique of
> > it).
> >
> > So for example, the subject might say "I am a tradesperson. Everyone will
> > always need a plumber. I don't have to beg for my money. These
> > paper-pushers could disappear tomorrow and we wouldn't miss them ...etc
> > etc" - the collected prejudices of a randomly chosen figure in our
> > society.
> > He is involved in the practice of a trade which guarantees her a
> > respectable living standard. The question is, how do contradictions arise
> > in *that* way of thinking as the trade become more and more one of
> > plugging
> > in integrated components, work that can be done by a kid, but work
> > requires the use of all sorts of computers, etc., etc., and altogether
> > the assumptions his or her way of life is predicated on change. ...
> >
> > I am only guessing with the above. But I think we can't define the
> > "object"
> > of activity in advance. To start with, we have to take it as a whole. We
> > have to listen to what subjects say and accept to a certain extent what
> > they say the object is, and see where it leads.
> >
> > Andy
> >
> >
> > At 10:09 AM 28/12/2007 -0800, you wrote:
> > >I follow you right up to the last paragraph in this note, Andy, where
> > >write:
> > >
> > >I want to go back to Hegel methodologically and work on the claim that
> > >*immanent* critique of the categories of activity is the only viable
> > >approach. Otherwise, we are just pulling pre-determined categories out
> > >our own heads. The latter is the usual approach in my view.
> > >
> > >Probably this means that I need to go back and read your article more
> > >carefully.
> > >What is an *immanent" critique?
> > >
> > >mike
> > >
> > >On Dec 27, 2007 2:35 PM, Andy Blunden <> wrote:
> > >
> > > > Re Leontyev's concept of "activity'. I wanted to leave this to a kind
> > of
> > > > "stage two" but since I want to use a category of activity too I have
> > to
> > > > get to it.
> > > >
> > > > So far as I can see, for ANL, "activity" is paradigmatically but not
> > > > exclusively the "external" activity, of an individual organism. So it
> > is
> > > > the same category of "activity" as Fichte used in his critique of
> > Kant,
> > > > which Hegel picks up on. And for ANL it is "instrumental" to use
> > Mike's
> > > > word (instrumental allows the object to be another subject, treated
> > an
> > > > object though), or "purposive", though I think inclusive of
> > or
> > > > non-conscious components of the actions. So it must be very similar
> > the
> > > > category of "practice" insofar as theory and practice are
> > differentiated.
> > > >
> > > > The problem comes for me when you have to get "stuck into" this
> > category
> > > > and work out the appropriate way of elaborating the various *forms*
> > > > activity. With some good reason, ANL I think moves to a Marxist
> > paradigm
> > > > of
> > > > "mode of production", practice-as-labour, in order to mobilise a
> > series
> > of
> > > > categories through which activity can be grasped. This leads to the
> > > > problem
> > > > that David identified, namely, that the dichotomy between labour and
> > > > communication is a false one. In fact this dichotomy has caused havoc
> > in
> > > > the whole stream of Cultural Psychology over the past 200 years, from
> > > > Hegel
> > > > to Marx to CHAT to contemporary contintental philosophy. Hegel
> > the
> > > > paradigm of labour in favour of a paradigm of critique around 1805,
> > the
> > > > same time as he adopted a monological concept of Spirit. Marx
> > to
> > > > a
> > > > paradigm of labour in 1844. Then in the anti-Marxist tide of the
> > post-WW2
> > > > period everyone from French philosophers to critical theorists
> > abandoned
> > > > labour for communication as the paradigm. Some also turn to aesthetic
> > > > acitivity as the paradigm (subject-object, subject-other or
> > subject-self
> > > > are the three possible relations here).
> > > >
> > > > It seemed to me that the position of LSV which I so valued was that
> > LSV
> > > > held that it was the WHOLE of social practice (not just labour), and
> > the
> > > > WHOLE of culture (not just means of production) which were the
> > operative
> > > > concepts for psychology.
> > > >
> > > > The problem remains though, if we are not to simply adopt and take
> > over
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