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[Xmca-l] Re: Mediating Activity and Mediated Activity

Remarkable and beautiful!


Andy Blunden
On 5/05/2016 12:02 PM, Martin John Packer wrote:



On May 4, 2016, at 6:47 PM, Martin John Packer <mpacker@uniandes.edu.co> wrote:


No, Cavalli-Sforza studies human migration by tracing shared genes. I was referring to the work of Quentin Atkinson:

Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. Science, 332, 346-349.

I tried to include an image in my last message, but it seems to have been stripped out.


On May 4, 2016, at 6:40 PM, David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com> wrote:


Martin's referring to the work of Cavalli-Sforza, which assumes that you
can trace the spread of language by studying mitochondrial DNA. This
overlooks the fact the people do not simply inherit languages. They learn

I think that this may be Vygotsky's most overlooked contribution.
Vygotsky's description of the proto-language of the child's first two years
of life, combined with Halliday's great "Nigel" studies, provides us
with...the key to the origins of language.

The question of the origins of language in linguistics is a little
like string theory in physics; it's something linguists go into
because they find working with data messy and unpleasant, and dead speakers
tell no tales. For most of Western intellectual history, the only field
workers were amateur archaeologists seeking Biblical confirmation: a quest
for the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. In the 19th Century, the
field became so speculative that the Royal Society and the French Academie
des sciences banned the acceptance of scientific papers on the subject.
It was almost forgotten in the twentieth, and recent attempts to revive it
by searching the Human Genome Project for a "language gene" have led
absolutely nowhere.

Vygotsky shows us what language looks like when the infant tries to invent
it. When he says that thinking and speech have separate roots, and then
come together, what he means is that the first languages, which are still
being invented right in front of our noses, have separate two layers: a
semantics and a phonetics, and these are then linked. But that link is not
yet wording; it's not lexicogrammar: it's simply pointing out and naming
things: matching sounds to objects.

Halliday shows us how the child is able to exapt the lexicogrammar he sees
and hears being enacted around him to his own functional purposes, his own
semantics and his own phonetics. It's a big step, but it's a step that even
a two year old human can make given the collaborative help of conspecifics.
So it is not reasonable to assume that it was made only once. Throughout
human history, the number of human languages has tended to diminish and not
increase, either through genocide or through literacy or both. Babel was
indeed our past, but the single language that supposedly preceded it is
really a long-ago that is yet-to-come.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 9:04 AM, HENRY SHONERD <hshonerd@gmail.com> wrote:

As far as the invention of language, whether spoken, signed or written, do
we know whether it was invented once, or many times, independently? Are we
humans alone in the universe, the only inventors of language? Are these
questions relevant to the thread? If not, I only have questions, so they’re
my best shot.

On May 4, 2016, at 3:57 PM, David Kellogg <dkellogg60@gmail.com> wrote:

Well, but then in hindsight everything coevolves with everything, Andy.
only in hindsight. Three problems with that.

First of all, this view of "co-evolution" renders the idea of evolution
vacuous. There is no obvious reason why the larynx should be considered
"rudiment" of language rather than the mouth or the ears or for that
the hand (Stokoe makes a very convincing argument that sign languages
predate vocal ones). So then we have to say that speech co-evolved with
mouths and ears and hands?

Secondly, to pre-empt a little the upcoming issue of MCA, that this view
co-evolution also makes it impossible to explain crises as internal
phenomena. The pace of change of language is qualitatively different from
the pace of change of the "rudiment" of language, wherever you choose to
locate it, and this changing of gears needs to be explained. It wasn't a
simple adaptation to the environment, whatever it was; it doesn't appear
be environment specific at all.

Thirdly, this notion of co-evolution, discovering "rudiments" in
does not give us a unit of analysis that has all of the properties that
are interested in studying. The quipu and the notched stick
are deliberately endowed with meaning, but the larynx is not.

Perhaps what you mean is not the larynx but the vocal tract: the lungs,
the bronchial tubes, the wind pipe, the voicebox, the oral cavity, the
tongue, the lips and the nose and nasal passages. But this did not evolve
at all; in  fact, as a physiological organ the vocal tract does not even
exist. It's not an adaptation but an exaptation--a bringing
together of organs which evolved with very different functions for
a purpose which is not an adaptation to the environment but an attempt to
create a qualitatively new type of environment, namely a semiotic one.

The notion of the co-evolution of tools and signs not only renders the
of evolution almost meaningless, it also makes it next to impossible to
consciously and deliberately and rationally introduce design into
development. If signs are, like tools, just ways of slavishly adapting to
an environment or (worse) slavishly adapting the environment to human
whims, we can only stagger and struggle against each other, from one
adaptation to the next. But if speech is an audaciously wise attempt to
create an environment of an entirely new type, an environment made of
meaning rather than merely of matter, then we humans might have some hope
of transforming the bitter blind combat of each against all into a common
collaborative project. That would be co-evolution indeed.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 2:09 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:

David, I am responding to "Tool use--and even tool manufacture--is quite
common in higher primates. But while the higher primates regularly use
gesture, there is no evidence of any other species developing anything
a lexicogrammar."

In his somewhat discredited book "Ape, Primitive Man and Child,"
makes the point that the form of activity which is found in non-human
animals in *rudimentary* form but is fully developed in humans, is the
to the "transition from ape to man" and is thus the "essence of man" (to
use a lot of 19th century language). That is why he was so determined,
the time, to find "rudimentary" forms of writing among not-literate
(those memory sticks and knots).

For all the faults of this work, I think this was a profound insight.
he seemed to have been blind to is that the larynx evolved together with
the hand, and human beings learnt to speak at the same time as they
to make tools. It was only in 1931 that he recognised that a spoken word
was as much a sign as a piece of technology manufactured for
purposes - which nonetheless, did turn out to mark a qualitative leap in
human cultural development.

The great insight from this work is that despite himself, he looked
at the attribute of human beings which was exclusively found among
(lexicogrammar) as the "essence of man," but on the contrary to the
mediating activity which produced the change from one species to
This is the Hegelian idea of concept, a.k.a. species, as opposed to the
positivist concept of species/concept which looks for "essential"
attributes as definitive. But he didn;t know that until 1931.


Andy Blunden
On 4/05/2016 1:48 PM, David Kellogg wrote:


Tool use--and even tool manufacture--is quite common in higher
But while the higher primates regularly use gesture, there is no
of any other species developing anything like a lexicogrammar. It's in
sense that I was arguing that tool use has temporal priority over
signs. I
don't think tools and signs co-evolved phylogenetically any more than
co-evolve ontogenetically. I think that practical intelligence and
speech have separate genetic roots and separate functional paths, the
oriented towards the environment and the other towards conspecifics.

While he was in prison, Oscar Wilde was allowed one sheet of paper a
which was issued to him in the morning and then locked in a safe in the
evening. He used this to write a very long letter to his lover Lord
Douglas (about a third of this letter, with the long and highly
contradictory complaints removed, was published as "De Profundis").
But it
was only after his release that he was able to transform the sorry mess
into great art, a ballad about a trooper who was hanged while he was in

He did not wear his scarlet coat
For blood and wine are red
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead
The poor dead woman that he loved
And murdered in their bed

It's all there: the blue coat of the trooper is now red, Christ
blue water into red wine at Canaa, wine is transformed into blood
Gethsemane and Golgotha, and even the main complaint Wilde has against
Douglas in "De Profundis", which is that "each man kills the thing he
but each man does not die" is changed into "murdered in their bed". But
very first step in this transsubstantiation of mere suffering into
art happens in the very first word, where Wilde begins with "he"

Of course it's possible to use your personal misery to create great
But it's hard, for (at least) three reasons. First of all, it's hard to
stand back and let the material alone rather than try to whip it into
shape. Second, it's hard to reconcile the sense that your pain is the
and only and incomparable and ineffable and the sense that you are at
same time everywoman. Thirdly, pain is debilitating: it withers your
embrace right at the very moment when you need to reach out, makes you
unfit for companionship right when you need it most, fills your mouth
incoherent screams precisely when you most need the precision of words
convey what you are feeling to others. On top of that, as Vygotsky
really good art is not the contagion of feeling: it's the
individuation of
social emotion and not the socialization of individual emotion.

The unmotivated reconciliation that ends "Lemonade" is deus ex machina,
i.e. both unartistic and unrealistic. Either it was manufactured for
market consumption, or the raw emotion that preceded it was. Or both.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 11:05 AM, Greg Mcverry <jgregmcverry@gmail.com>

I would have to agree with Andy on the co-evolution of the tools. To
separate one as developing phylogenetically as ontogenetically seems
Could one argue that agriculture was a pre-cursor to formal writing
but sign systems evolved as a form of communication long before? I am
not a
cultural anthropologist. I really do not know if there has been a
system developed in a hunting and gathering culture.

Yet that does not mean those same cultures were not ripe with sign
and meaning makings.

I think the mediation and differentiation of tools coevolving is even
stark when we consider the age of the web. For the first 25 years of
web the people building the web were also doing their own identity
People that hung out on the the Well, Usenets, chat rooms. xmca
etc were defining the tools in a way to help define themselves. Here
agreat piece by Ben Werdmuller reflecting on how his tool development
not be separated from his own ontological development:

In terms of Beyonce. Whether you call it a mediating activity or a
activity. I am not sure it matters. The point is to be a force. For
not in the states her latest release has been seen as a call to women
color. Her Super Bowl performance was both celebrated and vilified.

I haven't heard Lemonade yet ( I suffer from severe pop culture
but I hear it getting talked about all over the web. I wonder how
would think of something like the web where the culture is both
market pressures but not limited to any one national identity. Is the
the world spirit?

On Mon, May 2, 2016 at 8:44 PM Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
I think the evidence is in that speech and labour (i.e.,
tool-use) co-evolved, but writing came a whole epoch later.
I do not think it is a sustainable "developmentalist" point
of view that a form of activity can first be differentiated
and then be mediated: the mediation and the differentiation
co-evolve (so to speak). That's the whole point.

On my update to:

I never claimed that Vygotsky only got his Hegel through
Marx: his knowledge of Hegel was mediated through a number
of sources (including Lenin and Engels and probably
Plekhanov, followers of Deborin and Lewin). The correction
you referred to was my admission that the passage you drew
my attention to in HDHMF I had overlooked in my catalogue,
and that it had to be included with the one or two other
allusions which seem to have come from a reading of the
section of Hegel's Subjective Spirit named "Psychology".
Someone, c. 1931, drew his attention to these passages.
There are other passages of The Subjective Spirit which
would have been of great interest to Vygotsky and would
certainly have been appropriated if he had ever read them,
but he hadn't, far less the Logic (though he had studied
Lenin's Annotations on the Logic) or the Phenomenology,
which no Marxist or Psychologist read in the period of his

Is it time yet, David, for you to make a correction to your
claim that the Vygotsky archive would eventually turn up
Vygotsky's annotations on the Phenomenology?


Andy Blunden

On 3/05/2016 9:00 AM, David Kellogg wrote:


You and I both come out of the pugilistic left, and
we live in a country where socks are considered formal
apparel. So I imagine that no question mark is required to
start a discussion; nor pulling of punches to finish one.

I think I made the case that the distinction was pretty
useful, at least to Beyoncé fans--if not, see Vygotsky's
conclusion to Chapter Two of HDHMF, where he points out
that the precise nature of the relationship of signs and
tools needs to be worked out yet, but in any case that
relation is indirect; it MUST pass through a
super-category he calls MEDIATING activities. For YOU and
for HEGEL, all activity can be said to be both mediating
and mediated, but this is a non-developmental point of
view: for a developmentalist, one must perforce be
differentiated first. Phylogenetically, it seems likely
that tools were differentiated before signs, but
ontogenetically it is usually the other way around.

What really IS academic in the extreme is your
own distinction between "really quoting" Hegel and
quoting Hegel in a footnote to Marx academic. It's also
quite unprovable. By the way, this might be a good place
to acknowledge the corrections you have recently made to
your assertion that every single Hegel reference you have
found in Vygotsky's work can be found verbatim in Marx.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

On Mon, May 2, 2016 at 12:00 PM, Andy Blunden
<ablunden@mira.net <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:

   I didn't see a question mark anywhere David, but (for
   reasons of my own) could I just note that Vygotsky is
   not really quoting Hegel, but rather quoting Marx
   quoting Hegel's Shorter Logic in an author's footnote
   to /Capital/. Marx puts an interesting twist on the
   point Hegel is making in the original. I think it is a
   twist which preserves Hegel's meaning, but it is
   really the opposite of what Hegel is saying.

   By "the cunning of Reason" Hegel means how History and
   social processes in general unfold according to their
   own logic, irrespective of the intentions of their
   human actors. Marx twists this to make the point that
   natural objects act according to human purposes, not
   their material properties as such.

   I agree that when Hegel is talking about human
   affairs, "Spirit" means "Activity", but of course
   unlike Marx, Hegel deifies Spirit. For Marx, men make
   history, only not under conditions of their own
   choosing. For Hegel, men are mere tools of the
   Weltgeist (world spirit).

   I was able to grasp the distinction between mediating
   and mediated activity, though given that all activity
   is mediated and all activity is mediating, the
   distinction strikes me as academic in the extreme. I
   remain to be convinced that Hegel knoew of any such

   The paragraph following the note on "cunning of
   Reason" in the Shorter Logic is an interesting one:

   TheRealised Endis thus the overt unity of subjective
   and objective. It is however essentially
   characteristic of this unity, that the subjective and
   objective are neutralised and cancelled only in the
   point of their one-sidedness, while the objective is
   subdued and made conformable to the End, as the free
   notion, and thereby to the power above it. The End
   maintains itself against and in the objective: for it
   is no mere one-sided subjective or particular, it is
   also the concrete universal, the implicit identity of
   both. This universal, as simply reflected in itself,
   is the content which remains unchanged through all the
   three/termini/of the syllogism and their movement.


   Andy Blunden
   http://home.mira.net/~andy <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy>

   On 2/05/2016 9:03 AM, David Kellogg wrote:

       I'm reading a chapter by Janette Freidrich in the
       collection "Vygotski
       maintenant" published in 2011. It's an imaginary
       dialogue between Buhler
       and Vygotsky on the former's theory of language
       and the latter's criticisms
       thereof, very cleverly written in INDIRECT SPEECH
       so that Friedrich doesn't
       have to waste time trying to imitate the voice of
       each or pretend that she
       knows the exact wording of each argument.
       Friedrich begins with Hegel's
       distinction (from the LONGER Logic, the one that
       I've never read) between
       mediating activity and mediated activity.

       Mediating activity is what Vygotsky talks about
       using the quote from Hegel
       in HDHMF Chapter Two: it's when your role is
       essentially bystanding, when
       you use one force of nature, more or less in the
       natural state, against
       another.For example, you arrange the downspout of
       your house roof gutters
       so that it bores a hole in a piece of limestone.
       Or you hang your wet
       laundry on a tree branch and let the sun dry it
       out instead of trying to
       wring it dry yourself..

       Mediated activity is in some ways the same, but in
       others completely
       opposite. It's the same in that you are using one
       natural force against
       another, but it's opposite in the sense that your
       role is not bystanding;
       you are yourself one of the forces of nature. For
       example, instead of
       arranging the downspout, you make a chisel or a
       drill of some kind to bore
       a hole in a piece of limestone and sculpt it into
       a flagstone or a
       tombstone. Or you beat the laundry dry with a tree
       branch instead of just
       hanging it there.

       Friedrich points out that in Vygotsky's early work
       (e.g. "The History of
       the Crisis") Vygotsky speaks of psychic tools--he
       is treating ALL activity
       as "mediated" rather than mediating. But in HDHMF,
       we know that he
       CRITIQUES this point of view, precisely because it
       equates the sign and the
       tool. Now, you might think that the sign even more
       like mediated activity
       and even less like mediating activity than the
       tool. After all, sign users
       are not bystanders; they are even more intimately
       and intensively and
       deliberately involved as subjects than tools. But
       that confuses the sign
       user with the sign itself. It also ignores a key
       difference between
       mediating activity and mediated activity--which is
       that in mediating
       activity the force of nature is allowed to act
       according to its own
       properties. When I use a word, I do not try to
       transform it from a sound
       into something else; or rather, if I do, then I
       get something that is less
       obviously language and more like onomatopoeia.

       While I read, I am listening to Beyoncé's new
       album "Lemonade", which is an
       attempt to take a force of nature (the sour lemons
       of a husband's
       infidelity) and to transform it into something
       larger than life or twice as
       natural (the eponymous lemonade). It's an uneasy
       cross between a mediating
       activity ("for colored girls who have considered
       suicide | when the rainbow
       is enuf", where 20 imaginary characters are used
       and Ntozake Shange simply
       stands back) and a mediated one ("Black Macho and
       the Myth of Superwoman",
       where Michelle Wallace tries to use her own
       experiences alongside a
       traditional academic approach). Beyoncé can't
       quite figure out whether she
       wants to do this as a mediating choreographer for
       an ineffable everywoman
       or as a mediated activity by the one and only
       Pasha Bey.

       David Kellogg
       Macquarie University

Status: O