Re: [xmca] Streamed Discussion of Discussion of Development in CHAT theory

From: Paul Dillon <phd_crit_think who-is-at>
Date: Wed Nov 14 2007 - 18:42:39 PST

  When I read your post I really couldn’t tell exactly what was Vygotsky and what was you.. The part of your message that really set my bells to clanking is the following:

“LSV does not agree that this situation involves no agency; it involves RECIPROCAL agency, and at first it is the adult agency which is the central tendency of development and the chld's agency is reduced to

 peripheral status. Only when the child becomes a toddler will this
   relationship be reverse.”
  Now I haven’t even come close to memorizing Vygotsky’s writings, don’t really don’t have any interest in doing so, and don’t have his collected works to check it out, but from what I remember, Vygotsky never used the terms: “AGENCY”, “adult AGENCY”, “child AGENCY”, or “peripheral AGENCY”. I don't read Russian and of course translations are always problematic but AGENCY in the way you're using it is completely foreign to my understanding of Vygotsky. So when you use those terms to justify claims about his postion on infant agency, it just seems a muddle to me. William Blake’s comments about Christ’s nose are apropos in this context.
  The muddle isn't just that since the very concept of “reciprocal agency” seems to imply that any subjectivity is necessarily associated with an OTHER in whose GAZE the a subject comes into existence as a REFLECTION. I think dancing might be the appropriate image which interestingly enough is one of the basic forms of hominid sociality.
  But I do agree with you that at birth a child is already a social being ... but at what level? The same could be said of any mammal, most birds and definitely bees and ants. But human sociality, as well as that of chimps and other primates, is based on a long ontogenetic process (10% of the average life span of chimps, perhaps 30% of the average life span of humans), a process in which HIGHER MENTAL FUNCTIONS develop. As I understand it, the mediated structure of action that differentiates Vygotsky from Pavlov, concerns these higher mental functions, AND not any other type of “sociality”. The recent discussion about epi-genesis, all the ideas a la Chomsky about linguistic hardwiring in the brain, etc. do not really change that difference from the perpective of the 4 million year old process of socio-cultural determination of hominid adaptation and biological transformation.
  p.s.: My Klingon comrades in arms were especially upset by your closing comments and began to chant the following:
  Nal komerex khesterex, nal khesterex komerex
  A sentiment clearly distinguishable from: Nam Yo Ho Reng Ge Kyo.

David Kellogg <> wrote:
  Dear Paul, Andy, & eric:

Sorry to change the subject line back. I like Andy's (re)formulation very much, and in fact I think that "radii of subjectivity" is in some ways superior to BOTH my own formulation ("event horizon", which somehow brings to mind a black hole) and Vygotsky's original formulation ("social situation of development") which disturbs Mike because of its apparent uniformity and unilateralness. Andy's formulation has none of these problems. But LSV's original formulation has an advantage too, which I will get to below.

Last night one of my ex-grads came by for dinner and we watched the streamed discussion together (partly because I think that her own thesis, which staked out the classroom rather like one of Professor Engstrom's forests, might make a good video presentation). A number of points came up which made me think that it would be good to change the subject line back, so that our own radius of subjectivity once again coincides with that of Mike, Dr. Subbotsky, Penti, and Yrjo Engstrom.

When we look at the quotations that Mike pulls out (on the social situation of development) in context (Vygotsky Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 198 first of all), we see that they are POLEMICAL in intention. Mike is quite right to point out that LSV's remarks are basically Gestalt in their thrust (and eric's ref to Lewin is most a propos on that score). But who is he thrusting against?

Here's what he says just before the quote that Mike pulls out:

"One of the major impediments to the theoretical and practical study of child development is the incorrect solution of the problem of the environment and its role in the dynamics of age when the environment is considered as something outside with respect to the child, as a circumstance of development, as an aggregate of objective conditions existing without reference to the child and affecting him by the very fact of their existence. The understanding of the environment that developed in biology as applied to the evolution of animal species must not be transferred to the teaching on child development."

He then begins Mike's quotation with the phrase "WE MUST ADMIT...." which suggests to me that the quotation that disturbs Mike is actually concessive, and his MAIN argument is indeed that the child does have agency, precisely because the social situation of development is a SOCIAL situation of development, and a SOCIAL situation of development is not simply a radius of the child's subjectivity alone (though it clearly does not exclude the child's subjectivity).

Now, on p. 215 of the same volume, LSV goes back to this problem in the context of trying to demonstrate that a NEWBORN infant is already a social being and not a biological one and therefore must have a SOCIAL purview (which includes reciprocal social agency) and not simply a biological one (which is in an obvious sense more unilateral, because the environment cannot intentionally act upon the child).

LSV's argument is exquisitely perverse: it will bring smiles of recognition to those who have seen him take such counter-intuitive (and polemical) positions as arguing that second language learning is BETTER than native language learning it is precisely BECAUSE it is not as good, or arguing that children learn to talk BEFORE they can actually think.

His argument is this: because the newborn is so incompetent and cannot fulfill his or her own most basic needs (unlike an animal), the child is born a social being, with attendant social agency (which is, however, a peripheral tendency rather than a central one).

"Objects appear and disappear from the child's fied of vision always due to the participation of adults. The child moves through space always in the arms of others. A change in his position, even a simple turning, is again intertwined with a social situation." (215).

In other words, because the child lacks the biological subjectivity (agency) of an animal the child develops social agency, by interacting with adults. This is what creates the "social situation of development" that bothered Mike.

(I am projecting, actually; Mike is quite unkerfluffled in the video, but I somehow feel that when he says things like "I am VERY unclear about..." he is really expressing the same sentiment that I do when I say "I TOTALLY disagree!" in his own much more considered and mature manner).

But we can see:

a) LSV is really talking about VERY early childhood, i.e. what Wray calls "the bubble". I think there's a good reason why this mention of the social situation of development does not crop up much later.

b) LSV does not agree that this situation involves no agency; it involves RECIPROCAL agency, and at first it is the adult agency which is the central tendency of development and the chld's agency is reduced to peripheral status. Only when the child becomes a toddler will this relationship be reversed.

c) LSV is being polemical. In particular, he is once again arguing against the idea that the child is a botanical or zoological being, and arguing for the peculiarly human characteristics of children.

Interestingly, just before this passage he talks about the child already existing BEFORE birth, but he is not making a "right to life" argument at all; he is pointing out that birth is a social event, and it is the creation of social man that makes man worthy of the name human.

In Halliday's volume on Early Childhood Language, he tells of how when Nigel was fourteen days old, he cried for a very long time. When his mother changed a diaper, she discovered a large and painful boil. Of course, with this discovery, the boil did NOT stop hurting, but Nigel DID stop crying. And this, according to Halliday, was Nigel's first communicative act.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

PS: Paul...I think Volosinov only means ECONOMIC interests. I admit I'm not too sure; he does talk about the furthest stars.

But if you wanted to write a Klingon prospectus for an intergalactic stellar development megacorporation you could probably do no better than that little bit of Gilbert Rist that got Professor Engstrom started. If that's development, I'm a paramecium.


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Received on Wed Nov 14 18:44 PST 2007

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