re: Objekt -- back to the future

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Sun Apr 17 2005 - 13:27:37 PDT

Just for curiousity, I googled "object of activity" on lchc. Somewhere I
have a large file with
early parts of this discussion. But I enclose one note that is part of a
thread participated in
by Arne Raeithel and Ritva Engestrom that points toward a discussion that
could be re-
membered by present participants in xmca to good effect.
Date: 95-03-31
=46rom: Raeithel Arne
Subject: Re: two parts/three parts (*very* long)
To: xpractice
Again, Ritva has laid her gentle finger on something like a wound (not yet
a scar, there was no time for much healing) of the activity approach: What
to do about the conceptual difficulties of the "object" of communicative
As she said, I struggled with this in the past. My "Kommunikation als
gegenst=E4ndliche T=E4tigkeit" was published in spring of 1989, before the
command socialism went bankrupt for good. One reader, Alfred Lang,
commented that it is a curiously agonizing text, saying essentially simple
and old things along convoluted lines of arguments. "I am happy that I
never succumbed to the seduction of Marxism," he added -- if I remember the
same as he does (are you reading this, Alfred?).
In short form, I have to recount the argument here for the (doubtful)
benefit of readers of English, before I'm able try to tell you-all what
came as a revelation to me in the state I was in late night: The
distinction of "self"-regulative objectives and referential objects leads
to a very useful combination of the two types of extended triangles of my
last note (did I note that it was one-third-baked? :-).
This is how Ritva put the solution:
*>Bakhtin is unusual clear in the issue that in producing utterances,*
*>we are working with two kinds of objects: interlocutor (I have*
*>called it 'social object') and life (or 'content' in the sense of the*
*>possibilities of human activity). I see that the 'social object' alone*
*>is a special case of meaning construction. ...*
*>Applied to conversations, the "dual orientation of language" makes it*
*>possible to view, e.g., a medical consultation as a local dialogue in*
*>which a patient and a doctor share an attempt to construct the*
*>referential object of the consultation and to solve practically the*
*>problem related to the object. From the viewpoint of conversation,*
*>the object is not just an object of the doctor's "tool-mediated"*
*>action. It is an *object of the consultation* that includes the*
*>subjective perspectives of both the patient and the doctor.*
The diagramming task for me now is: to clearly distinguish the two kinds of
(i) object of the transaction / content / reference object(ive) of Act.
(ii) interlocutor / social object / "self"-regulative objective of Act
In a sense, Bateson et al. said this with their "relational aspect" and
"content aspect" of every communication, and before them Karl B=FChler whose
works I still could not re-read. I wish I had time! Seems that I will get
some soon (knock on wood).
But first, my argument from 1988: Why we-in-the-AAM (Activity Approach
Movement :-) should treat communication as *one special type of object-
oriented activity*, and not as a separate kind of experience/acting in
general ?
The latter alternative had been advocated by Lomov:
"Activity" should be the term for the S/O-relation (changing nature), and
"Communication" was to be clearly separated, because it exists in an
S/S-relation (changing "superstructure", "ideology", "beliefs", "sets", and
so on). This smelled to my nose badly of Cartesianism, as I would say
today, after the last three years of e-discussion in the xfamily and in the
Peirce-L. -- I hope I have not done unjustice to Lomov's text (I do not
have it in English, somewhen in the Sov.Psychol., I guess). Would somebody
please correct me, if I am wrong?
I asked myself with violent disbelief: How could these be ever separated?
As if the other subject would not be an object at the same time. As if any
talk would not have a "shared" (divided and distributed and spanned over
the relation) object if it sustains itself at all...
But my German colleagues, Rainer Oesterreich and Marianne Resch, also had
chosen this binary distinction: Handlungen und Kommunikationen (actions and
communications). They refused to consider the alternative: that
communications have the same kind of basic regulative structure as the
actions that a single actor/person tries to realise with his or her goals
in mind, eye, and trouserpocket (e.g. knot in the h'kerchief).
My article thus grew out of an internal discussion paper of the Institut
f=FCr Humanwissenschaft in Arbeit und Ausbildung of the Technical University
of Berlin. I wanted to overcome the obvious counter-argument: that we
scientists are treating compatriote, democratically equal subjects as we
would inanimate objects, and are even saying that this is how every- body
treats everybody. That is: I wanted to make clear what "object" meant in
the original discourse in the middle 19th century, when Marx turned from a
spirited Hegelian into a passionate and determined materialist of his own
Great help I found in the works of Peter Keiler who, as a participant in
the CoP of Critical Psychologists at the Free University of Berlin, was
criticising several versions of Vygotsky Light making the rounds in student
papers and teachers' seminar texts of the late seventies.
The conceptual problem has to do with the category called "gegenst=E4ndliche
T=E4tigkeit" -- usually translated as object-oriented activity. It means
literally a being active with regard to some thing. The word thing (German
Ding) incidentally means nothing more than "issue brought before the
"Thing" (i.e. a palaver of the elders; central men who had, however, talked
in their home spheres about the issues before that...).
Curiously, this word then came to mean inanimate objects, mainly.
Therefore, a more abstract kind of name was invented by coining
"Gegenstand", a translation of Latin objectum -- "thing presented to the
mind", as the Oxford Concise Dict explains, -- "and not to the council or
to the community" as we might add. "Gegenstand" means that *which stands
counter me*, then. This happened around 1650, I believe. Meanwhile
"Gegenstand" again means concrete objects for most people, although it is
also still the abstract word used in laws and court discourses, in
technical papers like patents, some philosophy, etc.
=46rom this analysis I concluded to work with a neo-logism: "counter-
process" (Gegenprozess): that which a me or we wrestles with. "Prozess" is
also the word in German for a trial before a judge; therefore the
collateral meanings evoked are beneficial: Something social, running in
conventional forms, yet never to be predicted; except by *very clever*
young or old LA Law figures, maybe... That's what's making the suspense for
many who watch that series.

Peter Keiler found three senses of "gegenst=E4ndlich" in Marx's early
writings (before 1848 and the Manifesto):

A human may:
(1) wrestle literally, i.e. bodily, with another human. The prime example
for Marx here was Love, not War, building on Feuerbach's passionate
arguments against the pure spirit processes of Hegel, and on the very fresh
experience with Jenny Marx -- they had their wedding before they decided to
emigrate to Paris, driven away by Prussian censorship.

This means that reproduction of the community of bodies is the primary
meaning. This is said against the orthodox Marxist error to put production
first in a theory of human history.

Related to a counter process then means to *be* a body, single or in
transactions, in love, work, and "trouble". A good name for this shade of
meaning of the category might be "human Drama" -- as Politzer suggested,
and Vygotsky took up enthusiastically.

(2) Humans may wrestle with things -- what he or she or they *have* as
their external object, nature, and sense, [was sie "als Gegenstand, Natur,
Sinn ausser sich haben", Marx 1844] i.e. with things, social situations,
products, organisations,...

This is the usually meaning in activity theory -- the reference object
numbered (i) above when we look at a conversation at work.

(3) Humans may wrestle with one another non-literally, they may *be*
object, nature, and sense for a third (party, being, CoP,...) [k=F6nnen
"selbst Gegenstand, Natur, Sinn f=FCr ein drittes sein", Marx 1844]

This, I propose is sense (ii) of object from above, i.e. Ritva's "social
object", and what I take to be Vygotsky's intended meaning when he defined
the difference of the sign from the tool as it's self-directedness or
inner-directedness. -- Peirce also saw as prime function of semiosis the
beautiful, ethical, and true self-control, true, that is, in the sense that
any conceivable and living community of scholars will finally accept as the
ground from where to go further...

I have stressed many times here in the xfamily that we shouldn't construe
"self" as meaning only the [social] individual, and we also should not
think that the problem of the border of individuals or groups or CoPs is
solved with a renounce of Cartesiam dichotomies. Therefore, "internal" may
mean "internal to a class", for instance, pertaining to the social object
of the class, to its (their) self- regulative objective.

Imagine my sheer wonder when I found that Peirce's Firstness, Secondness,
and Thirdness match exactly with the three shades of "object" with respect
to subject's activity that Marx had distinguished when Peirce was a
five-years-old, listening intently to his father, the great mathematician...

In the next post, I will propose some diagrams for working with these ideas.

So long: Arne.

Marx, K. (1968/1844). Kritik der Hegelschen Dialektik und Philo-
 sophie =FCberhaupt. [General Critique of Hegelian Dialectics and
 Philosophy]. MEW Erg.Bd. 1, pp 568-588. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.
Raeithel, A. (1989). Kommunikation als gegenst=E4ndliche T=E4tigkeit.
 Zu einigen philosophischen Problemen der kulturhistorischen
 Psychologie. In: Knobloch, C. (Ed.). Kognition und Kommunikation.
 Beitr=E4ge zur Psychologie der Zeichenverwendung. M=FCnster: Nodus,
 pp. 29-70.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun May 01 2005 - 01:00:07 PDT