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Re: [xmca] The Coconut Eyes of Consciousness
some of your emails are annoying because you apparently attempt to
misread what I have written and what it is about. I am not
UNDEVELOPMENTAL in my views or writing, precisely the opposite. And I
am totally labor movement---I come from the poorest of the poorest and
condemn the ruling relations that lead to the reproduction of
inequity. I practice what I preach (If I preach at all), too, about
anything I say, whether with respect to environment, sustainability,
etc. I really have no clue why you make those suggestions which are
precisely the opposite of what I am standing for. Perhaps Mike can
intervene here and ask David for a little bit more of netiquette.
On 15-Apr-09, at 4:15 PM, David Kellogg wrote:
Last night I read two very different pieces of work on culture and
cognition, and this morning it seems to me that the differences
between them are very instructive in the light of:
a) recent exchanges here on the list on ethnomethodology in general
and conversational analysis in particular, and
b) articles by Wolff-Michael Roth and Sungwon Hwang in the recent
MCA which seem to me to take a nondevelopmental view of solidarity
by reducing it to a question of ontology and by eliminating the
“prise de conscience” necessary for the recognition of similarities
c) work we are doing in our Vygotsky seminar on Chapter Six of
Thinking and Speech, where the "prise de conscience" of Claparede
and Piaget is rather too placidly translated as "conscious awareness".
The first thing I read was Edward Hutchins' contribution to the 1987
Holland and Quinn volume 'Cultural Models in Language and
Thought' (CUP). It’s called 'Myth and Experience in the Trobriand
Islands' and it offers two readings of a common Trobriand myth which
is offered to explain the fact that we do not see the spirits of the
dead and yet they see us.
One reading is what the Trobrianders themselves offer: A woman dies.
Her daughter gives birth. She leaves the land of spirits to grow
taro for her daughter and grandchild, but while doing this work, the
daughter flings a soup bowl out the window and strikes her. In
anger, the dead woman divides a coconut and gives her daughter the
portion without eyes. From that day on the dead have eyes to see us,
but we have no eyes to see them.
The contradictions in the myth (e.g. the fact that the dead can
carry heavy weights, and are both living and dead, at home and in
exile on an island which is both real and mythical) are so many
signs that it there is an esoteric as well as an exoteric
interpretation. But the very existence of this explanation is known
only to a privileged few.
The second reading is based on Freud's famous interpretation of a
man's toothache: according to Freud, the lives of old people weigh
heavily on the young, and we all wish the early demise of our elders
and despise ourselves for wishing it. We suppress the wish, but
still feel guilty for having wished it, and thus punish ourselves
through dreams and myths. The fact that we deny that this is what
our myths mean is taken not as disproof of the hypothesis but rather
as so much proof of the hypothesis of repression. The analyst always
thinks we doth protest overmuch.
Both interpretations admit the possibility of consciousness of the
true meaning of the myth, but both of them close off this
possibility to most interactants and seize the coconut eyes of
consciousness for a priveleged few. The difference is that the
Trobriand interpretation denies this consciousness to outsiders and
confers it only to privileged insiders. But the Freudian
interpretation denies this consciousness to the interactants and
confers it only upon privileged outsiders.
The second thing I read was Ron Eglash’s book on African Fractals,
justly recommended elsewhere on this list. This begins with an
extremely clear explanation of what fractal geometry really is and
how it depends on the strictly mathematical idea that infinity can
be discovered within a finite space.
Then it shows how the creators of fractal architectures in Africa
proceed to this consciousness by varied degrees of 'prise de
conscience': some create fractals exoterically, because they 'look
pretty', some because it is the hallowed esoteric tradition, and
some because they are fully conscious of what they are doing.
Eglash's book is what it demonstrates; it presents what is, after
all, fairly esoteric knowledge in an exoteric way, a way that allows
you to read it for pretty pictures, or for arcane knowledge, and
even for a full mathematical 'prise de conscience'. The very act of
reading it and understanding it convinces you that all three of
these things are different moments of the same realization of
consciousness. If they can think of infinity, so can you. If you can
think it, so can they.
But both acts require some work; there is no sense in which the
concept of infinity within a finite space is presupposed or assumed.
Consciousnss is "necessary" in the sense that it is mathematically
determined and not arbitrary. But it's not built in from the get-go;
after all, termites build beautiful fractal architecture as well,
but they are, presumably, quite oblivious to both the aesthetic and
the mathematical properties of what they are doing. Ultimately, the
concrete form of that the necessary consciousness of infinity in a
coconut shell takes is a "prise de conscience". That "prise de
conscience" is a volitional and not a predetermined act.
In Wolff-Michael’s editorial 'Solidarity and Responsibility', posted
on his website, he is arguing for a sense of difference that is
'ontological' and 'categorical', that is, 'original' in the sense of
Adam and Eve. He directly opposes this to a necessary consciousness
of sameness that is developed through the consciousness of
difference. I think (I hope) that it is this, and not any strongly
felt anti-labor sentiment, that leads him to denounce strikes as
ultimately pointless and self-destructive.
In Sungwon Hwang’s commentary on my own piece, this 'ontological' as
opposed to developmental sense of me-in-the-other is taken still
further: 'The first articulation that crosses boundaries of cultures
and languages presupposes the heterogeneous Self and culture/
language in which boundaries are already problematized.' (p. 191),
and 'The development (sic) does not denote the homogenization of
differences but the non-self-identical movement of an irreducibly
heterogenous unit.' Difference, then, is only the 'intensification'
of some kind of pre-existing hybridization.
At this point I have to admit that we are wading into esoteric water
that is well over my exoteric head. Fortunately, Sungwon Hwang gives
an example from my own work with teacher talk about student talk,
and native language talk about foreign language talk. He says:
'(M)eta-talk is a constitutive part of talk' (192), 'there is no
clear distinction between talk and meta-talk once we consider them
within the whole act of communication'.
I think what I actually said was that 'talk about talk is not just
talk, but it is not not talk either'. But I think I'm now willing to
go a little further: in Sungwon Hwang's sense, the distinction is
indeed clear and even embodied, because in my data meta-talk is by
and large the province of the teacher and the teacher alone. It's
only when we recognize this division of labor that we can form the
firm intention to break it down. In this sense the transgression of
the boundaries we see in linguistic hybridization is not at all
ontological but rather a largely unforeseen and even unpredictable
In the second part of Chapter Six of Thinking and Speech Vygotsky
takes Claparede and Piaget (once again!) to the woodshed for their
explanation of why the various partial functions of consciousness
(e.g. attention, memory, perception) become conscious in school
children but consciousness as a whole does not.
Claparede and Piaget offer the 'loi de prise de conscience', which
simply states that we become conscious of differences before we
become conscious of simliarities, and the quasi-Freudian 'loi de
deplacement' according to which this consciousness of maladaptation
is transferred from the plane of action to the plane of
consciousness through a process very like Freudian displacement and
only after a period of time. (Minick version, p. 189)
Vygotsky retorts that these laws merely restate the problem and do
not by any means resolve it: we still do not know HOW we become
conscious of similarities or HOW this consciousness gets transferred
from the plane of practical intelligence to the plane of verbal
If anything, Claparede and Piaget have made it LESS clear how
children overcome the 'maladaptation' that shows them difference but
not similarity and LESS clear how knowledge can be 'displaced' from
the world of direct action the realm of indirect representations.
By the end of the chapter, Vygotsky offers a solution, and it’s
really the same exoteric ethnomethodological solution as Eglash,
just as the non-solutions offered by Piaget and Claparede seem to
partake of the same primevalist exoterica offered by the
Trobrianders and by Freud.
The child becomes conscious of similarity AFTER the child becomes
conscious of difference for the simple reason that difference is can
be perceptual, while similarity often requires the formation of a
higher concept. The child 'seizes consciousness' of these concepts
by noticing first the DIFFERENCE between everyday concepts and
science concepts and only then their similarity.
So it is that similarity emerges from difference, and the coco-nut
eyes of consciousness are opened by the sundering of the coconut.
And so Yeats writes:
'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'
Seoul National University of Education
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Lansdowne Professor, Applied Cognitive Science
MacLaurin Building A548
University of Victoria
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