Re: [xmca] Point of view in writing

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Mon Aug 20 2007 - 18:11:01 PDT

A belated note on point of view in writing, from someone who greatly admired Mike's use of insider-outsider point of view not only in "Cultural Psychology" but above all (as half of Scribner and Cole) in "The Psychology of Literacy".
  The use of first person was CRUCIAL to the latter, because it seems to me that one of the key problems of "Psychology of Literacy" is what I think of as the Needham problem. Needham asks why China made so many technological breakthroughs--and then ignored them (gunpowder, paper, oceanic navigation, printing). Instead of putting gunpowder to its proper uses in maiming and murdering, Chinese people used them as fireworks. Instead of the normal pusuits of colonial settler genocide, Zheng He organized huge oceanic voyages to present the people of Zanzibar with gifts and then leave. Printing and civil service exams were designed around poetry rather than for scientific discourse.
  So-called "Western" technology, and the science that was subsequently derived from it, was something of an exaptation from the more aesthetic and play-oriented purposes that the Chinese used. Much of it,according to Needham, was really just a clever and fortunate trick of reverse engineering, much like what South Korea did in founding its auto industry in the 1970s.
  Instead of buying factories "cle en main" and then building cars, Pak Chung-hi simply bought a car and then used it to build a factory. There were even experiments, during the seventeenth century, with replacing Latin as a language of international communication with a system of "real characters" based on Chinese, or on what people thought Chinese writing was like. (Eventually, to our disgrace, English was used instead, a QWERTY technology if there ever was one.)
  Scribner and Cole have the same "Needham" problem in "Psychology of Literacy". How on earth did the Vai manage to "reverse engineer" their own writing system, and then FAIL to develop a literature, or a scientific language, or a mathematics beyond simple arithmetic. What went wrong?
  Scribner and Cole's answer is really to problematize the word "wrong". The real question is why we should EXPECT cognitive benefits which clearly outstrip the cultural needs for them to magically appear. This is an idealist, and fundamentally ethnocentric expectation, to which Vygotsky and Luria were not entirely immune.
  One of the main things that made it possible for me to swallow this bitter pill was Scribner and Cole's use of first person to show growing awareness of the goal-orientedness of literacy practices and the situatedness of those goals. Contrast with Trotsky's use of the THIRD person in "History of the Russian Revolution", where he is trying to show that it is OTHER people who have a partial view of things.
  Bakhtin actually talks about this in "Art and Answerability", the almost unreadable set of essays that Jay mentioned not too long ago. The necessity of dialogue derives from "Excess of Seeing", a typically "narrativist" (that is, self-centred) way of expressing the idea that only other people see the back of your head (that is, see you as a complete, finished, "consummated" life from without).
  I strongly dislike the way Bakhtin expresses this idea (It has a pop-song quality, "When you and I look at each other, different worlds are reflected in our pupils...."). But I agree that first person point of view in writing is very effective in conveying, not its immediacy, nor even its partiality, but its partialness.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Aug 20 18:13 PDT 2007

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