Re: LCA: Getting started with tools, signs and activity

From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane (
Date: Thu Jun 16 2005 - 23:46:44 PDT

Steven and all,
I think that the primary difference between tools and signs is in the
different place and function of the mediational processes. Both tools
and signs change both the nature of the individual's and culture's
relationship to the environment, on the one hand, and the nature of the
relationships between individual people, between individuals and
institutions and between segments of culture to other segments of
culture. However there is a difference in WHERE the mediation occurs and
how the process is started and by what means it is carried out.
Moreover, those differences are systematic and not random.
Tools mediate the "subject" - "object" relationship. They not only
enable different and further reaching transformations of the
environment, but also enable specific conceptualizations of the
"object", making certain aspects of the "object" more "visible" than the
others. I am using the notion of an "object" in a very abstract way --
not just material environment, but also people if "objectified" -- like
in our own dialogue about the nature of human communication, or
relational objects like "electricity", "power" etc.
Semiotic signs, on the other hand, mediate the relationships between
persons, the "subject" - "subject" relationship, changing it form direct
affective response relationships (attack/defense; appeal/appeal;
rivalry; power domination; etc) to relationships ABOUT something else
that is addressed in the semiotic signs. Semiotic tools also change the
subject/object relationships, however only within the subject/subject
relationships. This is where the significance and the meaning of the
semiotic signs are forged. So, tools change the nature of the
subject-object relationship first and through that, they indirectly
affect and change social relationships (through the division of labor
and through changing the nature of social possibilities, norms and
rules. Semiotic signs, on the other hand, change the nature of social
relationships from direct emotional ones based on immediate reactions
between the subjects, to relationships which are mediated by topics and
themes far out (in place and time and the nature) of the immediate
present reality. Through mediating interpersonal (and inter
"institutional") relationships, signs give the "object" to which they
refer a different significance and meaning, and thus also mediate the
subject/object relationships. What is also important is Vygotsky's
notion that the sign mediates between "I" and "me" -- i.e. that when an
interpersonal process is internalized, then, not only signs become tools
of self direction, but because the interpersonal relations are changed
from immediate ones to the mediated ones, the nature of identity is
changed from immediate emotional, sensory-motor one (primary
psychological functions) to a person with a meaning (not just "me" but
also "I") -- in other words, self-awareness is directly born in the
process of internalization of a mediated social relationship.

I think that this distinction is relevant, because it creates a
functional explanation of different types of mediating processes and the
relationships between them.

Steven Thorne wrote:

> Hi all --
> Following up on Gordon Well's post, I too believe there is a
> distinction between (material) tools and semiotic (language-based)
> signs. But the dividing line between them is problematic, especially
> in the area of pre-existence vs. dialogical emergentism (a binary that
> is analytically useful but ontologically too discrete).
> Material tools do exist in material form prior to use whereas the
> actual vocalized utterance, scribble on the page, ASL sign, or pixel
> on a screen display does not. However, there is also a case to be made
> that material tools, in part, dialogically achieve their ideality
> through the immediacy of use. For instance, two users may
> differentially understand and employ the "same" material tool, or
> adapt to or learn from one another's tool use over time. Or together
> users will create a new culture-of-use for a tool.
> With language, I will pose the counter point. Each instantiation of an
> utterance carries with it the redisua of prior occasions of use. As
> Gordon intimated, this is one of Bakhtin's primary contributions, that
> language use and learning is a process, more or less creative, of the
> appropriation of others' words (I paraphrase Bakhtin here), with both
> anaphoric and cataphoric forces mediating its construction.
> In this sense, while many facets of communicative activity are
> emergent, signs are, in a very real sense, pre-existing, at least in
> ideal forms. Indeed, as Jim Lantolf and I describe in our paper for
> this week, corpus analytic research demonstrates that supra-word
> constructions and formulaic sequences (i.e., pre-existing utterances)
> comprise the majority of both spoken and written utterances.
> Though it is likely unnecessary to say this to participants on xmca,
> language matters both at qualitative (meaning, significance) and
> quantitative (frequency and distribution) levels. As the L1 researcher
> Dan Slobin argued more than 20 years ago that "language evokes ideas;
> it does not represent them" and "linguistic expression is S( not a
> natural map of consciousness or thought. It is a highly selective and
> conventionally schematic map" (1982: 132).
> This articulates with our interest in cognitive linguistics and
> linguistic relativity research. Contemporary efforts in this area,
> while not uncontroversial, provide compelling empirical support for
> the relations between communicative activity and the formation of
> higher order mental functions (discussed not so much in the intro
> chapter available for this minicourse but later in the book).
> Returning to the opposition that opened this post - I'll finish up
> with a sticky utterance. Building on Rommetveit, it is clear that
> dialogical contingencies radically shift the contours of languaging
> activity and its relation to perception and cognition. But so too is
> there a dialectical tension between the "pre-existing" ideal form(s)
> of an utterance and its "more or less" creative deployment in
> goal-directed communicative activity.
> Steve
>> I have recently been reading Anna Stetsenko's introduction to the
>> section in/ The Essential Vygotsky/ (Kluwer, 2004) entitled
>> 'Scientific Legacy: Tool and Sign in the Development of the Child.' I
>> found it a very helpful situating of the tool/sign issue in the
>> larger Vygotsky project. Anna has agreed to have the article
>> reproduced for our discussion and I intended to scan it and then post
>> i.t. Unfortunately the software that comes with my scanner won't
>> launch. But I'll keep on trying.
>> Following on from previous discussion, I feel there is another
>> distinction to be drawn between tool and sign (while acknowledging
>> their similarity in mediating action). Tools (of a material kind) are
>> usually already to hand and are 'used' in order to benefit from their
>> affordances for the achievement of the intended action. Signs (of a
>> linguistic kind) seem to me to be different. They don't preexist the
>> signing/languaging operation that mediates an action which is often
>> not fully envisaged in advance. Furthermore, signing occurs in a
>> dialogic interaction with one or more other signers who contribute
>> their own interpretation of the sign. Signs (or 'utterances' as
>> Bakhtin would say) look in both directions - both to preceding
>> utterances and to the anticipated response. To a degree, this still
>> holds when the dialogue takes place in inner speech as such inner
>> dialogue is ultimately part of a social activity involving other
>> people and the tools that are also involved.
>> Gordon
>> --
>> Gordon Wells
>> Dept of Education,
>> UC Santa Cruz.
> Steven L. Thorne
> Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
> Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
> and
> Communication Arts and Sciences
> Associate Director, Center for Language Acquisition
> Associate Director, Center for Advanced Language Proficiency Education
> and Research
> The Pennsylvania State University
> Interact > 814.863.7036 | |
> | IM: avkrook

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