I believe you are correct in your criticism that it does appear Valsiner
views language as a 'fixed code' system but having read much of what
Valsiner has written it is unfair to place that Valsiner into that school
of thought. ON page 88 he writes; "In terms of broad domains of semiotic
mediation, the same mediating device makes the links between past, present,
and the future. It first relates what is presently the case with some
contrast with the past. Secondly, it encodes the feelings of the person
concerning the here-and-now setting. Finally, it makes the distinction
between the immediate next developmental possibilities/impossiblilities
(what can and cannot happen next) and potential possibilities (what could
be brought to the realm of possibilities)."
I view that he speaks to the dialectic nature of signs being both external
and internal. The external nature of a sign can represent past and present
and the internalization of those same signs represent the present and near
future goal of the communication. The external nature has to be fixed,
doesn't it? Otherwise, you may call something a table and I mayl call it a
fiddle. This is similar to Vygotsky's idea that teaching should have a
measure separate from how learning is measured. A person's self assessment
of progress toward a goal will always differ from the external measures
utilized by those having a vested interest in an individual achieving a
goal (i.e. a high school diploma).
Yes, David signs do depend on context but their are also times when a sign
can hold meaning across contexts. The pythagorean theorem would be such a
sign. But that would again return to the idea that signs hold hierarchacal
regulatory mechanisms the further along they move towards assisting a
person develop higher psychological functions or processes.
<firstname.lastname@example.org To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity"
Sent by: cc:
xmca-bounces who-is-at web Subject: Re: [xmca] process structure of semiotic mediation
I think we are BOTH right. That is, Valsiner WOULD say that "how" places a
certain constraint (or "hierarchy" or "paradigm") on the conversation
(although, as I show below, it is merely a grammatical constraint and it is
easy to break with the inter-personal resources of discourse). And he ALSO
believes that grammar is an intra-personal set of relations which allow the
elision of elements in inter-personal discourse.
I think that is the basis for my criticism (though this criticism is really
just an aggressively ignorant question). It seems to me that Valsiner
really holds a "fixed code" theory of language, whereby "meaning" is the
essence of a linguistic sign (rather than "sense", which is LSV's position,
or "theme", which is Volosinov's).
Let me return to my example (and I should reiterate that this example is my
own, and I'm not even really sure if this kind of elision is what Valsiner
means when he talks of abbreviation).
A: How are you?
B: Fine, thanks, and you?
This is what Halliday would call a preferred response; a default reponse.
Interestingly, the VAST majority of responses in our Elementary English
textbook are of this nature, e.g.
Ann: What a nice day!
Nami: Yes, it is.
But when we put the kids in groups for "verbal volleyball" or in pairs for
"pair pinpong" (a game in which they have to keep the conversational ball
in motion for as long as possible or lose a point), this is what we get:
Ann's Team: What a nice day!
Nami's Team: A nice day? It's TERRIBLE.
Ann's Team: Terrible? Look at the sky...
The kids have realized that it is possible to resist the constraint of
whatever grammar the initiator places on the conversation by giving a
DISpreferred response. As Halliday points out, a dispreferred response
always gives the respondant more discretionary power than the initiator
expects him to have.
What he doesn't point out is that discretionary power is not intra-personal
grammatical power (the dispreferred response STILL obeys the hierarchical
grammatical constraint of "how" in that it must be paraphrasable by an
adjective or adverbial phrase). It is inter-personal, and therefore
discoursal rather than grammatical in nature.
To return to my example (which also appears in our fifth grade English
textbook here in Korea):
Mrs. Smith: How are you, Jinho?
Jinho: Not so good, Mrs. Smith.
Here Jinho has power over Mrs. Smith, because Mrs. Smith is now CONSTRAINED
to ask what is wrong. But the constraint is not grammatical in nature; it's
discoursal. Mrs. Smith can ask "Why?" or "What's the matter" or "Tell me
about it" or even "You look okay to me".
(This is true of ANY kind of dispreferred response. The situation is
identical if Jinho beams and answers in an unusually exuberant tone of
voice that he feels wonderful.)
There is nothing grammatically fixed about this discoursal constraint that
I can see, and it is not easy for me to see how the underlying
inter-personal discourse rule could be "abbreviated" or internalized. I
think I am content to let it remain embedded in context as most language
users who are not psychologists do. I think it is not systematically
distinguishable from non-linguistic contextual factors, such as Jinho's
pallor, background knowledge about his relationship with his girlfriend,
the state of his digestion, etc.),
I think here and in many places, Valsiner resists this inter-psychological
"intergrationalist" attitude towards language as irretrievably embedded in
context. For example, Valsiner appears to use "sign" and "linguistic sign"
almost interchangeably; I think this is misleading because some sign
systems are undoubtedly decontextualizeable (e.g. traffic lights) but
language is not one of them. In some of his diagrams and examples "e.g. "I
Valsiner comes dangerously close to implying that a sign "stands for" a
feeling or a psychological process, at least in the middle levels (away
from "speechlessness"), something he admits is NOT compatible with
"real-life examples" (e.g. "fun", on p. 95). Real life examples are more
like a car horn than a traffic signal; we hear them, and we must needs look
around at the context and conjecture intentionality before we can assign a
Did Vygotsky believe in fixed word meanings? I think the quote that
Valsiner gives us on p. 89 needs to be put into context. Vygotsky is
contrasting "meaning" with "sense", which he considers concrete, material,
and thus far more fundamental; meaning is simply an abstract,
self-identical idealization of the concrete reality of sense.
Today we would call this contrast one between "semantic meaning" and
"pragmatic meaning". Most linguists, being philosophically idealist, would
try to claim that the former and not the latter is fundamental, hence our
astonishment when the information given in dictionaries is flatly denied by
computerized corpora of actual language use.
But in Vygotsky's day, linguists were younger and wiser. Volosinov called
this distinction not two types of meaning, but a contrast between meaning
and theme, and I think this is what Vygotsky is getting at (and "theme" may
simply be Titunik's translation of "smysl", perhaps the Russianists on the
list might help here).
For Valsiner, it is theme which comes and goes, but meaning is the
unchanging reality of language (p. 89). It is impossible to imagine
Vygotsky or Volosinov subscribing to such a non-materialist, Platonic idea.
On the contrary. In a gedankenexperiment, it is "meaning" and not theme
which Volosinov does away with. He imagines a world (inhabited by
pre-hisoric men) where only a single word exists, a grunt which must be
applied in a multitude of contexts (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language,
p. 101). This all meaning word (and it IS a word) has no meaning at
all--only myriad themes (that is, senses).
I think that, unlike the opposite gedankenexperiment which linguists are
constantly playing with (that is, words which have no pragmatic value and
exist only as semantic "meanings"), Volosinov's fantasy has real, empirical
counterparts: it is the way Darwin's grandson applied the same vocalization
to a swan, a coin, a lake, and a glass of water. It is the way children use
"aaa" or the way teenagers say "do sumthin' and "you know what I mean".
(It is the way in which George W. Bush is "understood" as an unimpeachable
miltarist despite his incoherence and ungrammaticality, while John Kerry is
"understood" as insulting the enlisted men he has always so vociferously
identified with for a much smaller lapse in grammar. We "understand" Bush
because we understand his warmongering themes, not his garbled meanings.
The Republican-dominated media insist on pure self-identical semantic
meaning only in the case of Kerry.)
Helen Keller writes (in "The Story of My Life") that her great realization
at the water pump was that "everything has a name" (interestingly, Ann
Sullivan disputes her account at almost every point!). Helen is very good
at putting things in a language that the ordinary hearing and seeing person
can understand, but this way of putting it, which I think conforms better
to Valsiner's view of meaning rather than Vygotsky's sense of "sense",
expresses not the reality of language but merely a thundering banality.
Every thing does indeed have a name, and that name is "thing".
Seoul National University of Education
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