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Re: [xmca] The Coconut Eyes of Consciousness


What do you mean by "conscious" or "consciousness"?  Is it something peculiar to humans?  If not, how does it differ from V's higher mental functions, processes, etc.?  

Also, thinking fractally, when does similarity dissolve into difference or difference resolve into similarity?  

Paul Dillon

--- On Wed, 4/15/09, David Kellogg <vaughndogblack@yahoo.com> wrote:

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack@yahoo.com>
Subject: [xmca] The Coconut Eyes of Consciousness
To: mcole@weber.ucsd.edu, "Culture ActivityeXtended Mind" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Date: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, 4:15 PM

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 beyond differences.

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 development.

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 intelligence. 

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.' 

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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