Re: [xmca] Activity Systems, Time, and a shared semantics

From: Martin Packer (
Date: Tue Oct 18 2005 - 18:04:50 PDT

Michael's reminder that Marx was concerned with consciousness resonates with
me. I'd drafted this yesterday with doubts, but now Michael's message
encourages me to send it!

I appreciate the link Steve provided, and his suggestion that a larger
triangle - state, class, property - could help me think about the kind of
activity in my shoemaker example. I don't have a better suggestion, but
something still seems missing to me.

I am trying to figure out what it means to have a psychology that uses the
method Marx used in Capital. Part of the difficulty is that different people
have seen different methods at work there. My sense is that he began with a
seemingly simple entity, the commodity, and traced it through the intricate
cycles of production and exchange, to show that it isn't simple at all, but
is divided (it has both value for use and value for exchange) and is
constituted by all its linkages to the whole system of which it moves.
Mediation? The activity of productive labor emerges from hiding as the
analysis progresses.

The triangle shows internal linkages in a whole, certainly. It can be
expanded to show more of these linkages. But a capitalist economy has the
added wrinkle that people systematically misunderstand their own activity.
Subjectivity becomes important for Marx's analysis: his 'objective' analysis
of society included attention to the subjectivity of its members, and it is
here, perhaps, that a psychology starts to appear. There's a motivated
covering up of the moral basis of capitalist economies. That perhaps is why
it's so hard to remember the poverty, misery and powerlessness that Katrina

I guess what I can't find in the triangle is the place where the subject,
the person, changes. Where reflexion raises consciousness. That seems
ironic; clearly I'm missing something. Vygotsky's original triangle ( was between
stimulus and response, with the mediation being something *internal* to the
organism. Thinking was, first of all, an interruption in the reflex arc, a
reorganization of the subject. Vygotsky and Luria looked at behavior, I
think, in order to study consciousness. Or perhaps mind is the better word,
since they were interested in both consciousness and unconsciousness. To
redraw the triangle as between subject and object places the mediation
outside. I'm quite comfortable with the notion that learning is a practical
and distributed process but, as a psychologist, I also want to understand
the transformations of psyche in this. (And here, of course, time - or
rather history - is crucial.)

I don't mean to sound merely critical, and I don't have a better alternative
to triangles; I'm just thrashing around trying to understand what it is I'm
trying to understand. Each of us is a nodal point of linkages that stretch
fibrously through time and space, history and geography. That sounds a bit
postmodern, but Marx seems to bring us there.


On 10/17/05 9:47 PM, "Steve Gabosch" <> wrote:

> I view the extended triangle diagram as a device to help one get
> started. Offhand I can think of, roughly speaking, three kinds of
> activities of interest to activity theorists and researchers that the
> diagram can be quite useful for getting started in.
> First, it is a capable pedagogical device to begin an explanation of
> certain aspects of activity theory to someone new to these ideas -
> for example, the notion of mediation, of subject/object, of artifacts
> (tools, signs, etc.), and the social relations that are inherent in
> all human activity. The diagram makes it easier to explain and
> visualize some of these concepts. It is a delightfully simple
> introductory device to point out various complex ideas with.
> Second, it is a good way to *begin* an analysis of an activity or
> activities - the triangle in effect asks pertinent questions like who
> is doing what? what artifacts are being used? what is the intended
> outcome? what is the physical/etc. object being worked on? what
> social rules are in force? what community or communities are
> involved? what divisions of labor are operative? These questions
> are a place to start, a way to rough a few points out on paper at the
> outset and get headed in the right direction. I am doubtful,
> however, as are others, that the triangle diagram is very useful as a
> way to conduct or especially finish an analysis.
> Third, it is a creative device for beginning to graphically portray
> theoretical thinking about human activity. I have also asked some of
> the questions about social relations that Martin asked quite
> eloquently. What about a shoemaker working for a capitalist? I
> found Yrjo's diagram intriguing and conducive for creative thinking
> about such social relations. For example, I have played around with
> drawing another triangle around the usual one, with points
> representing property, the state, and class surrounding the activity
> diagram - representing a class society as the social system that is
> the context of any particular activity system or activity such as
> shoemaking. I then found myself playing around with some of the
> intriguing "breakthrough" animation concepts on the Finland site
> (where the toolmaking/social
> rulemaking/labor divisionmaking system of human existence breaks out
> of the individual/species/environment domain of animal
> existence). What would it look like in this graphical form to break
> through the main institutions of class society (class, property, the
> state) and rise to a new society, in an analogous way that animal
> life broke through to human life? And what would it look like, using
> these techniques, to show how class society rose in the first
> place? I've played with these and various other ideas and found the
> triangle diagram helpful and stimulating to clarify my thinking about
> ways to explain and diagram these kinds of concepts.
> In this vein of using the triangle to stimulate creative theoretical
> thinking and diagramming, I remember really enjoying a presentation
> Carol Lee made about human cultural activity using triangles and
> levels. She offered this at a meeting of the CH-SIG at the AERA
> convention in San Diego a couple years ago. I believe many have
> similarly found Yrjo's activity triangle intellectually and
> theoretically stimulating.
> As long as we keep in mind a very important point Bill (bb)
> emphasized recently, that a map is not the terrain, and a diagram is
> not the thing it is portraying, I think we can find all kinds of
> creative uses for devices like the extended triangle diagram. My
> suggestion, as I have been emphasizing here, is that this device, and
> devices like it, be seen above all as a possible place to start.
> - Steve
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