Relative permanences was Re: [xmca] artefact 3

From: Bruce Robinson <bruce who-is-at>
Date: Thu Jan 10 2008 - 16:32:21 PST


First of all, apologies for not having posted comments on your paper
earlier as I said I would - I started a long post, got ill and am only
now getting back to it.

One of the things I did write before getting ill was that I did think
there were reductionist elements in your paper, though I don't see them
in the same place as Paul but rather
in the arguments against structural explanations of any social phenomena
and their reduction in some places to individual action. [ I will add to
what I wrote then and post it separately.]

I don't have a problem with lumping signs and tools together or leaving
out Wartofsky's three forms. If I understand you correctly, the
culture/society distinction is essentially one of durability, the
congealing of activity in the form of artifacts - what David Harvey
using Whitehead calls ' relative permanences':

    "...flows often crystallise into 'things', 'elements', and isolable
    'domains' or 'systems' that assume a relative permanence (and
    sometimes even acquire limited causal powers) within the social
    process. Reifications of free-flowing processes are always occurring
    to create actual "permanences" in the social and material world
    around us. Examples might be material landscapes (such as cities),
    social institutions that seem almost impossible to transform by
    virtue of the solid way in which they have been constructed,
    divisions of labor that are so routinized and organised through an
    infrastructure of factory and machinery that they seem impossible
    not to replicate, socially constructed discourses that tightly
    constrain and regulate behaviors and even discourses which become so
    widely accepted and reified that they themselves become part of a
    landscape of knowledge seemingly impermeable to change."

If this is how you understand culture, Andy, I think there is a tension
with some of the other things you write about institutions not having a
real existence independent of their instantiation in the psychology of
individuals engaging in social practice. For me (and Harvey), the
'relative permanences' have causal powers of their own, emergent
properties which cannot be reduced to the sum of the activities or
social practices they contain or of the activity which created them and
they represent in congealed form. I don't mean that they have agency in
the sense that Latour attributes agency to artifacts such as door
closers but that insofar as humans pursue their own ends they encounter
them as a material force (in the broad sense you use the word material
in referring to material culture) with distinct properties. In places
you do seem to acknowledge this e.g. when you talk about 'the hard force
of dead matter but in others you seem to argue against it. Have I

Must go now. Past midnight here and I have to get up early (well, by my
standards) tomorrow.

Bruce R


Andy Blunden wrote:
> Briefly Paul, yes I think there is a hint of "flattening" in what I
> have proposed. I said at the outset that the paper only aims to
> clarify fundamentals of CHAT. It is not reductionist. I am not
> denying the validity of Wartofsky's categorisations, I have just never
> found the occasion to use them. I think the only way you are going to
> get through the vagueness of concept of culture and cultural
> difference is to have an absolutely clear meaning for the word
> "culture". That in no way reduces, bypasses or overlooks the infinite
> complexity of questions cultural difference, which involves far more
> than a mass of artefacts.
> You say that you 'share Mike's concern about the utility of that
> "cultural/social" distinction.' I find that an unhelpful term and I
> don't know where it comes from. Are you saying that it is not helpful
> to distinguish between the material things (artefacts of various
> sorts), which are used to implement some social practice or
> institution and the actual actions and operations that constitute that
> social practice or institution? That the difference between what
> people do and what they say, between what happened in history and what
> was written about it, between the academic activity that goes on in a
> university and the books and buildings that make up a university? That
> the common difference indicated here - between things and the
> activities in which things are "activated" - is not useful?
> Andy
> At 01:52 AM 10/01/2008 -0800, you wrote:
>> I haven't participated much in this discussion although I have read
>> every post. In a way that has been part of the problem since I've
>> followed out the threads and references. I often begin responses to
>> threads that I don't finish in one sitting and save in the drafts
>> folder. So it seems coincidental (synchronistic?) that I was
>> preparing an post entitled "artefact" that got stored in the drafts
>> folder just about the same time Andy must have been preparing his
>> "artefacts" post. Now it seems relevant to at least share and expand.
>> This was stored 4 or 5 days ago:
>> Mike's "ugh", in a message responding to my post questioning the
>> word "culture" , impelled me to read the chapter of Cullt Psych that
>> he attached I read Cult Psych 5 or 6 years ago but really had
>> forgotten the specifics of the model of culture presented in the
>> book, the key elements of which I understand to be : the
>> ideal/material duality implicit in all artefacts; Wartofsky's 3
>> types of artefacts,; the notions of schema and script, in which (at
>> least) type-2 artefacts are linked contextually to activity/practice;
>> where context also has has a dual existence as "that which
>> surrounds" and "that which weaves together." The term culture
>> reconnected to its etymological origins in cultivating, a garden
>> being an appropriate metaphor for the domain of artifact mediated
>> activity or practice whose manifestation in "cultures", coherent and
>> consistent groups of activities/practices, in w .
>> Although I can see some of the relations between Hegel and CHAT
>> that Andy proposes; e.g., the relationship of meaning to scripts or
>> schemas (CHAT) and that between the universal and the particular
>> (Hegel),
>> And that's as far as I got before storing it the drafts folder.
>> Moving on: if Andy is using mike's model of "culture" I don't
>> believe he adequately deals with the differences implicit
>> Wartofsky's artefact-type differentiation. In fact, it seems as
>> though all the artefacts in Andy's presentation are Type-1, which on
>> another plane is analogous the analytic philosophers' mania to reduce
>> all logic to first-order propositional logic, a comparison Andy might
>> well be able to relate to (beneath Godel's beaming grin). The idea
>> that artefacts can be usefully categorized as "cultural" and
>> "social" seems a step backward from Wartofsky's approach, especially
>> as enhanced by mike's refinement of the type-2 artefacts into schemas
>> and scripts (pure and practical reason?) while reserving the
>> aesthetic dimension for type-3 artefacts (play, imagination, fantasy,
>> art, etc. w/ no grounding in "necessity"). So I share mike's concern
>> about the utiltiy of that "cultural/social" distinction.
>> At the same time, I am not persuaded that mike's appeal to Geertz
>> can provide a "coherence" keystone that could hold together all the
>> different elements that one might want to call "a BongoBongo
>> culture" as opposed to a "BingoBango culture" . It is well known
>> that Geertz's "thick description" really provides no guidelines
>> allowing someone other than Geertz to go out and find the same thing,
>> produce the same description. So I remain skeptical about the
>> utility of "culture" as anything more than a catch-all term. But
>> insofar as one uses that term, Andy's definition "all artefacts"
>> seems inadequate.
>> On the other hand, the Sawchuk message that Andy forwarded,
>> emphasizes the important contribution I think Andy is trying to get
>> at. Schemas and scripts are universals the specific meanings they
>> assume in real-time activity the particulars. The
>> universal-particular yes providing an important insight into the
>> relation between the cultural-historical processes and structures and
>> the individuals participation. Sawchuk moves in a very useful
>> direction from my perspective . . . especially his emphasis on the
>> use-value/.exchange-value dichotomy .
>> Well, this one doesn't get stored, incomplete as it may be.
>> Perhaps Andy could elaborate a bit on the flattening of artefacts
>> into type-1 that I perceive in his analysis .
>> Paul
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