[xmca] Forgiveness as Recontextualization

From: Kellogg (kellogg@snue.ac.kr)
Date: Mon Oct 23 2006 - 22:41:58 PDT


Well, some of my grads do lurk here on occasion (Hi, Yongho!) but we have our own "cafe" at the Korean internet company Daum, where we store data and rehash arguments on this list in our own way. We discuss grades sometimes too, though, so the URL is a secret.

I was a little shocked by your sudden statement that NO psychological process can be decontextualized, and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. To me, recontextualization presupposes some form of decontextualization. So does internalization, actually.

I think that when Wertsch talks about the decontextualization of the mediational means, he is implicitly setting up a kind of logical route for interiorization to happen: first, other people are mediators, and because other people have their own free volitional will, this form of mediation is not readily recontextualizeable. Then, tools. These can be subordindated to the will, but they cannot be taken out of the physical environment in which they are used without losing their status as tools. Finally, signs. these are both subordinated to the will and fully recontextualizeable. That's how I've always understood Wertsch. Was I wrong? Was he?

One way to test this is to consider "forgiveness" as one of many higher (that is, mediated) emotions, by analogy with higher (mediated) intellectual processes. I'm afraid this throws me back to an older XMCA discussion (now several years old, I think): Vygotsky's late manuscript "The Teaching Concerning the Emotions".

Suppose LSV was really laying the groundwork for an essay more or less parallel to his work on the higher mental functions. He spends all that time discussing the already widely discredited James-Lange theory of the emotions because he fully intends to use it as a foil to discuss UNmediated emotions. While it is not true that "we feel sad because we cry", it might well be true that we feel unmediated emotions because we are responding cognitively to physical reflexes. So it might well be true we feel fear because we react to violence, and similarly that we feel rage because we are responding to a physical injury.

LSV's next step is to bring in Spinoza. I haven't quite worked out what exactly he was planning on doing here, but working by analogy with "The Development of the Higher Psychological Functions", he might be trying to show us what happens if we take a purely mentalist, unmediated view of human emotions. The result gives us a clear understanding of what higher emotions might look like, but no clear path to get there. It's not developmental.

So his third step would be an attempt at synthesis. In some ways, I feel "Psychology of Art" is already a step in this direction (though it clearly comes from the other end of his life and would have to be reworked to fit). That is, Vygotsky sees artworks as tools for the mediation of lower level emotional responses into higher, mediated ones.

But there are, of course, other forms of mediation available. In the case of the Amish, the mediators are clearly other people, and this form of mediation is not readily decontextualizeable for the non-Amish. Clearly, only signs are both fully capable of decontextualization and internal recontextualization. No wonder he was obsessed with Hamlet--in a very strange way, it is a play about forgiveness (both doing it and what happens when it is not done).

Last night while I was cooking dinner the Korean version of the National Geographic Channel rebroadcast a special on a pride of lions that has been evolving in a swamp habitat. It's a difficult environment, and the pride nearly goes extinct, particularly since someone is apparently killing most of the newborn cubs.

Whenever the females go out to hunt, they return to find one or more of their cubs killed (and they often eat the remains). One of the young females goes off and gives birth. When she returns, her own mother is a little TOO pleased to see her with the cubs--she realizes that her OWN mother is the cub killer, and they fight. The cub-devouring grandmother is defeated, but not killed; there is no question here of forgiveness, a simple calculation of strength as is normal in lion-fights.

The lions are very clearly thinking (about who is the cub killer, and about what can be done about it). But they are also very clearly not thinking human thoughts (they "forgive" the unforgiveable simply by forgetting it and eating the remains of their own children).

They are essentially obeying the James-Lange theory of the emotions, feeling their physical responses, unable to recontextualize them as volitional memory. Despite the stultifying anthropomorphism of the voice-over, not even the National Geographic narrator can transform this "Lion King" story into Hamlet.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education


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