Re: [xmca] Word meanings making up "Personality"

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Mon Feb 25 2008 - 00:43:57 PST

Thanks for the very challenging response, Heidi. I'll do my best to give you something equally challenging for your response to the response!

  I think that when LSV argues that "word meaning" is a unit of analysis, we need to ASSUME that he is not arguing that it is a universal unit of analysis. For example, I've got some data on my desk from BARELY linguistic three year old children. "Word meaning" is barely a unit, much less a unit of analysis.
  The same thing is true of analyzing the behavior of drosophilia or of whole nations and civilizations. Word meaning doesn't make sense here. What DOES make sense, at least to me, is the following METHOD:
  a) We need to find a UNIT OF ANALYSIS. This unit has to make sense in terms of the thing that we are analyzing AND in terms of the purpose of the analysis. It has to be a functional, and a functioning, whole. It has to be irreducible. For drosophilia, that unit might be "activity". For nations, that unit might be "class". For civilizations, that unit might be "nation" (if we are talking about modern or bourgeois civilization for example). Or not (if we are analyzing an ancient civilization or if we are looking at civilization with an eye to philology). For language growth in children, it seems to me that word meaning is quite workable, and activity is somewhat problematic, particularly when we consider adolescents (because as LSV points out, imagination and fantasy are not particularly reducible to activities). In some ways, "play" is a more suitable way of looking at child activity, and play is not reducible to some form of stunted adult activity (as Leontiev claims).
  b) We need to isolate within that unit of analysis two counterposed ELEMENTS. All units must have these elements to one degree or another, even if one is almost invisible or merely potential. The two elements are defined relationally, and cannot really exist without at least the potential other; that is why they are elements and not units. For example, within activity, there might be a tension between subject and object, within the commodity it might be between use value and exchange value, and within words it might be between "smysl" (pragmatic meaning) and "znachenie" (semantic meaning). Within play I believe the two counterposed elements are imaginary situations and abstract rules, and that all forms of play have these two elements in common.
  c) We need to look at how the RELATIONSHIP of the two counterposed elements changes over time. The elements may at first seem completely merged. For example, when we look at verbal nouns like "being" or even "sleeping" it is quite difficult to discern a subject and an object. Similarly, when goods are just beginning to be used as commodities, it is hard to discern their use and their exchange value. Words like "Hey!" and "Hello!" do not seem to have any semantic weight other than their pragmatic use, and children who play with their food do not appear to distinguish an imaginary situation or an abstract rule (although their behavior may be very gestural and regular). One element may then clearly "emerge" from the other. For example, in "I sleep" or "I laugh" we can see a very clear subject. Words like "this" and "that" have definite pragmatic (context sensitive) meaning (smysl) although their semantics are constantly in flux. Role play games like "house" or "cowboys and
 indians" or "war" have clear imaginary situations although the rules are negotiable. At some critical point, however, all of these relationships can then be reversed. For example, money and stocks are pure exchange values, scientific concepts have clear semantic meanings, and games like chess are dominated by abstract rules rather than imaginary situations.
  d) We need to understand that development is UNENDING, that the means of development itself develops. The endpoint of these transformations is simply the starting point of new transformations: whole sentences become elements in larger units called texts, games become elements in artistic and cultural life, etc. It seems to me we also need to understand that development develops the unit of analysis itself; that is essentially what we mean when we say that development is transformative and revolutionary and not simply accretive and incremental, and that is why there cannot be a single unit of analysis (e.g. activity) for all the different levels of analysis.
  To me, THIS is more or less what LSV takes away from Marx's Capital (and of course Hegel). I would say it is a bit more than just "a model to learn from" and more specific than merely a "philosophy". To tell you the truth, I don't think it is accurately described by calling it a skill or a technique, either. "Method" seems about right to me.
  I'm not against "dualism" per se. I think that when I talk to you, there is a dualism: you and me. I even think that when I talk to myself, there is a dualism. Not only that, I think that there is a real dualism between lower functions and higher psychological functions. But the dualism of mind and body, or "self" and body, I reject; it seems to me another version of body and soul. By suggesting that the "self" is a kind of imaginary friend, or a cyber-avatar, or simply the result of multivarious and poly-perverse linguistic performances, I'm suggesting the kind of surgery that LSV wanted to perform on idealistic psychology.
  I don't think I am "detaching" self from life's relations of essences. I am rejecting the whole thinginess of a self; I am saying that it is a piece of cyberspace, an illusion created by various linguistic performances that I give, rather like the illusion created by many computers simultaneously recreating the same website on their screens. It looks like there really is a "thing" out there that all the screens are looking at. But there isn't.
  You invite me to 'please read in the article from "Vygotsky described these stages" up to "has received the rank of general from its department"'. Why, I'll do better! I'll reread the whole LSV text for you!
  Actually, LSV is NOT talking about the ascent to the concrete at all. He is parodying the glorious career of various tropes in psychology (e.g. the Pavlovian reflex, the Freudian libido, the Gestalt, the personality). He points out that they begin a limited explanations for rather limited facts. They are then promoted to the administration of various adjoining facts and their explanatory power is stretched very thin, according to the principle that everyone is promoted from a job they do well to a job they cannot really handle.
  Finally, they cover the WHOLE of their domain (psychology) at which point they cease to explain ANYTHING. If the whole mind is a reflex, you cannot explain it in terms of reflexes, and if the psyche is nothing but libido, then saying that it is made up of libido is tautological. Similarly, Gestalt becomes purely DESCRIPTIVE and not EXPLANATORY as soon as the explanans is the size of the explanandum, and it makes no sense to say that personality is explained by personality. That is why it's very important to discern elements within the unit of analysis that are not coterminous with the unit of analysis, why we cannot explain, for example, word meaning as "thinking" or as "speech".
  When the unit of analysis becomes co-extensive with the domain, it behaves a little like a country whose market has become saturated, whose workers no longer have the buying power to sustain capitalist profits. It has to invade other domains and explain them. So we have the application of reflexes to physics, and the discovery of psychoanalytic tropes in literature and anthropology, Gestalt in philosopy and "personality" in animals. At THIS point, LSV says, it is time to retire--that's why he says "it receives the rank of general from the department". I'm afraid that this is NOT ascent to the concrete; it's more like descent to Gogol.
  I guess I think that the "self" is a little bit like the idealist psychology that is so obsessively concerned with it. Martin's point is really that LSV does NOT suggest a "synthesis" of idealist and objective psychology. LSV wants us to cut off idealist psychology. He does this by really REVERSING the relations between psychology and sociology; he does it by saying that we do not begin by explaining the self and then use it to explain society--we proceed the other way around. But as soon as we do this, we discover that the "self" is not really a stable thing at all; it's more like a moving interface between social ideology and personal ideology.
  Let me give you an analogy: the novel. In the 18th Century, we had the rise of the novel which told the story of the rise of a particular self: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Pamela, Clarissa, Charles Grandison. By the late 19th century novels tended to talk about the LIMITS of that rise: Anna Karenina, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Middlemarch. Lukacs uses this to talk about the rise and fall of the bourgeois epic.
  There are some problems with this. First of all, it suggests that novels are going to disappear, and they show absolutely no sign of doing so. It also doesn't do a lot to explain why novels read the way they do (why, for example, they are longer than the longest poems, or why they seem so very concerned with thoughts and conversations rather than adventures and deeds).
  Bakhtin has a better idea: he sees the novel as being just a name for what is "new" in literature, and what is "new" in written literature is always the moving interface between spoken language and written language, in every epoch represented by the novel (as opposed to poetry). That's really what I meant by trying to demystify and materialize the self as just another kind of "interface". I meant that it is just the point at which inner speech becomes outer speech, in the same way that the novel is the point at which spoken language becomes written language. That's all!
  You really mustn't take too seriously all those stereotypes and cliches that Paul attributes to me, Heidi! I didn't write ANY of that stuff about the "new man" and people becoming masters of their own destiny. Mind you, I'm not disowning it; I have met many people who DID dream like that and talk like that and they have always been people I admired intensely, people I have wished to be like, and even talk like.
  It's just that the actual data I have to work with doesn't look very much like children taking control of their language and their fate. This morning I got up and put Gounod on the CD Player and sang along with good old Faust:
  "Je suis avec ce breuvage
  Le seul maitre de mon destin!"
  Except Faust was holding the chalice of poison (and then the elixir of life). All I had was a cup of good strong coffee.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Feb 25 00:46 PST 2008

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