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[Xmca-l] Re: The Stuff of Words

Hi all, 

I've been able to follow the prior discussions only partially, as I was traveling last week, but I still wanted to jump into this one, as I always found the topic to be one tricky when familiarising one self with CHAT, turning the later a bit into a mysterious thing.

It's always been troubling to me (and it seems David K. was reacting to this too) reading assertions concerning artefacts as 'carrying history/practice', and I always felt that I was missing the point or some step in the reasoning. Frankly, starting to read CHAT literature is not easy, and some times one wonders why these complications. For it takes a lot of work to trace back to Hegel and then to Marx to be able to see what authors such as Leontiev, for example, is saying when he writes that activity is 'crystallised' in the product. It is only then that one begins to see why this or that apparently 'weird' way of wordings things. The text you shared, Andy, really helps in tracing these to Hegel notion of the concept and the idea. 

I more than once think of "The gods must be crazy" movie (which I would not be surprised if it had been brought to bear at xmca before). 
(see the Coke scene): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17HGR7FBwu0
An artifact, a glass Coca-Cola bottle, is thrown out of an airplane and found by Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, who have no idea about glass bottles or Coca-Cola. The bottle then becomes an object of cult that leads to all sorts of conflicts, eventually leading to an expedition to take the bottle out of the village. Surely most of you know the plot, and the allegory goes beyond the issue raised here. The scene may do as an example: the needs that the artifact meets are different in the kalahari tribe simply because in enters a different history of development. The bottle "embodies" nothing other than itself; the view that the bottle "encodes" something suggests that its use has to do with what theoreticians do (as Haydi points out), but actual use has more to do with what workers do (which is not less 'ideal'). Rather, all there is to the coke bottle in each context is its being a moment in some project.

I think that for the non-initiated and the initiated CHAT readers, finding and using expressions about transitions from ideal to material, and from material to ideal, can be confusing, as things can get mixed up very easily. Probably this may have to do as well with the way the works have been translated. It takes very knowledgeable scholars to disentangle all this, in which case CHAT becomes a bit of a mystery thing, quite inaccessible to many (like myself)... Where I find the good in the promise to overcome a very problematic and highly ingrained idea: that outcomes of human activity are like the external stamp of ideas that first are in the internal conscious mind. To do so, however, CHAT uses words in a different sense: the words 'external' and 'internal' are not like in classical thinking. Even the word consciousness changes... There is lots of languaging issues that can get you stray unless you care a lot...

To me, it is helpful to recur to other authors, such as G. Bateson, who are consistent with CHATs non dualist premises, but also develop a vocabulary less entangled into a long philosophical tradition. To me, the distinction Bateson makes between logical types, and specially that between Pleroma and Creatura (he uses Jung's terms, pleroma referring to the realm of physical forces; Creatura referring to the realm of organic (living) relations). The distinction here is not between the material and the idea, but between the inorganic and the organic (and then, between the organic and the uniquely human). I think that these get mixed up very easily in studies taking a CHAT approach these days. I agree with Y. Engeström, who saw a relation between Bateson's categories and the levels that Leontiev was working on (operations, goals). In fact, following Engels, Leontiev starts with this distinction between the way non-living things *respond* and the way living things *respond*. But of course, the living organism is not immaterial. It is made up of the same stuff as things are. And the same laws that apply to bodies apply to it. I think that articulating that juncture between what is of the realm of 'bodies,' and what is of the realm of conscious mind, and how the two are enmeshed with each other, is crucial for addressing the key Marxist insight with which Andy closes his article:  

“Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation” (Marx, 1859). 


From: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu <xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu> on behalf of ‪Haydi Zulfei‬ ‪‬ <haydizulfei@rocketmail.com>
Sent: 01 May 2017 22:16
To: ablunden@mira.net; xmca-l@mailman.ucsd.edu; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [Xmca-l] Re: The Stuff of Words

Andy,What I think has been omitted from your discussion is 'metamorphasis' or 'reification' of ideals which requires objectification and deobjectification of objects in practical processes. As you well know , Marx never reduces 'material' to 'ideal' . Ilyenko is quite in agreement with Marx concerning the problem. Their objection is over the issue of thinking that the ideal should be inside the mind. What is outside the mind is material . He , as you know , gives many examples : A church is an ideal , A diplomat is an ideal as talers are , etc. and they are outside the mind. Respectively , the worship of God has been idealized in a church , the diplomat gets out of his ordinary posture becomes a representative for the State , talers in the pocket are nothing more than ordinary metals but replacing precious golds in turn representing the labour spent on their extraction in mines. The above-mentioned items are ideal NOW; Hammers WERE ideals THEN at the start of the practical process. Now they are 'materials' reified and metamorphosed , that is through the furnace of practical activity one essence has been tempered and converted into another essence for which marxists including Ilyenko have different definitions.

      From: Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net>
 To: xmca-l@mailman.ucsd.edu
 Sent: Monday, 1 May 2017, 11:30:04
 Subject: [Xmca-l] Re: The Stuff of Words

And tables carry with them the practice of eating "at table"
and meeting a the board room table etc., it not that the
table carries the idea of table but is the bearer of
practices, which have refined the size and shape of tables
for eating, talking, etc. LIkewise pencils are for cursive
writing on paper. not scratching hieroglyphics into clay.

Great quote from Mike! There is a LOT of resistance to this
idea ... everywhere. It smells of Marxism.


Andy Blunden

On 1/05/2017 4:43 PM, David Kellogg wrote:
> Gordon Wells quotes this from an article Mike wrote in a Festschrift for
> George Miller. Mike is talking about artefacts:
> "They are ideal in that they contain in coded form the interactions of
> which they
> were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (e.g., the
> structure of
> a pencil carries within it the history of certain forms of writing). They
> are material
> in that they are embodied in material artifacts. This principle applies
> with equal
> force whether one is considering language/speech or the more usually noted
> forms
> of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute material culture.
> What
> differentiates a word, such as “language” from, say, a table. is the
> relative prominence
> of their material and ideal aspects. No word exists apart from its material
> instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, or hand movements, or as
> writing,
> or as neuronal activity), whereas every table embodies an order imposed by
> thinking
> human beings."
> This is the kind of thing that regularly gets me thrown out of journals by
> the ear. Mike says that the difference between a word and a table is the
> relative salience of the ideal and the material. Sure--words are full of
> the ideal, and tables are full of material. Right?
> Nope. Mike says it's the other way around. Why? Well, because a word
> without some word-stuff (sound or graphite) just isn't a word. In a
> word, meaning is solidary with material sounding: change one, and you
> change the other. But with a table, what you start with is the idea of the
> table; as soon as you've got that idea, you've got a table. You could
> change the material to anything and you'd still have a table.
> Wells doesn't throw Mike out by the ear. But he does ignore the delightful
> perversity in what Mike is saying, and what he gets out of the quote is
> just that words are really just like tools. When in fact Mike is saying
> just the opposite.
> (The part I don't get is Mike's notion that the structure of a pencil
> carries within it the history of certain forms of writing. Does he mean
> that the length of the pencil reflects how often it's been used? Or is he
> making a more archaeological point about graphite, wood, rubber and their
> relationship to a certain point in the history of writing and erasing?
> Actually, pencils are more like tables than like words--the idea has to
> come first.)
> David Kellogg
> Macquarie University