[xmca] Subject: Verb, Object

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sat Dec 22 2007 - 08:33:46 PST

Andy takes this from ANL's "Problem of Activity in Psychology" (The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology, J.V. Wertsch [ed.] Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 37-71)
  p. 47: ¡°We must make a special effort to warn against understanding human activity as the relationship that exists between individuals and the society confronting them. We must emphasize this since positivist concepts that are now inundating psychology constantly stress the opposition between the individual and society.¡±
  ANL claims that this is based on a false analogy: animal is to environment as human is to society. ¡°However, this misses the main point that in a society humans do not simply find external conditions to which they must adapt their activity. Rather, these social conditions bear with them the motives and goals of their activity, its means and modes. In a word, society produces the activity of the individuals it forms.¡±
  I still think this is a fundamentally REFORMIST view: it denies the basic, grave, and irreducible contradiction between other-regulation and self-regulation that every language teacher stumbles over in the struggle to go from presenting and practicing new language to having learners actually produce it of their own free volition.
  If no such contradiction exists (if SELF regulation does not in PRACTICE offer greater freedom to individuals than other regulation) what is the motive and goal of internalization? If no contradiction exists between other-regulation and self-regulation, why doesn't ALL other regulation operate in a bureaucratic, anti-educational way (as a baby-sitter rather than a teacher), and why don¡¯t ALL tools function to thwart internalization?
  Some mediational means certainly DO function like this. and I know a number of proud owners of GPS navigators who not only cannot read maps, they cannot really remember the directions given by the GPS and must constantly re-use the GPS to find their way. There is the story of the hapless German who drove his BMW into a lake because that is what the GPS navigator told him to do.
  In the language classroom, a number of teachers insist on conceptualizing the language lesson as a fancy presentation simply because they come to class with fancy tools such as puppets and they cannot imagine mapping them onto (e.g.) the learners hands and fingers. We've all seen presentations ruined by presenters who ignore the audience and are mesmerized by their own Powerpoints.
  But other tools self-destruct. I am not a big fan of the "scaffolding" metaphor (it's mechanical, it reduces the social environment of learning to one scaffolder and one scaffoldee and it invariably suggests a game of hangman or worse). But the whole point of a scaffold is that it is dismantleable.
  One of the key differences (for me) between signs and tools (one reason I am not willing to the desire to merge them) is that signs have this dismantlement built in, both because the other-regulator disappears leaving behind only the memory of his/her words and because words themselves are elided as understanding increases.
  Paul Bloom claims that certain processes are INHERENTLY transitive and others are NECESSARILY intransitive. So for example "sleep" is as naturally objectless as rain.
  This is an illusion caused by the unfortunate choice of English as a so-called "world language". There is nothing inherent about the expansion and dismantlement of sentences; it is exherent, in the sense that it is dependent on the degree in which context is plain and obvious, not least in the dominant linguistic conventions at hand.
  In Chinese (which is the only really democratic choice for a world language) we say "to sleep a sleep" and "to do a dream" and "to fall rain". As Halliday says, it is perfectly possible to imagine a language where people go outside, observe birds flying around, and remark "It's birding today!" instead of "birds are flying in the sky".
  But for Leontiev the natural structure of any human experience appears to be Subject-Verb-Object. This is from p. 48:
  ¡°The basic characteristic of activity is its object orientation. The expression ¡®nonobjective activity¡¯ is devoid of sense. Activity may seem to be without object orientation, but scientific investigation of it necessarily requires discovery of its object.¡±
  Humph. If scientific investigation is sometimes required to discover the object orientation of an activity (e.g. sleep) then surely people who do not have the training or the time or the inclination can and do conceptualize activities such as sleep or rain or flying around in the sky as being without any tangible object. Why would an expression that refers to this everyday non-scientific conception be devoid of sense? Are non-scientific expressions devoid of sense?
  On p 63, Leontiev describes the relationship of operations to actions:
  ¡°Actions as we have already said, are concerned with goals and operations with conditions. If we imagine a case in which the goal remains the same and the conditions under which it is given change, then only the operational composition of the action changes.¡±
  Suppose my goal is Nakseongdae subway stop in the number two line of the Seoul Metro. There is a subway strike, so I cannot get there on the subway. I take the bus instead. In that case the operational conditions change and so the operational composition of the action changes.
  But suppose I give up the goal of getting to Nakseongdae as a result of the subway strike? Then it seems to me that operational structure of the action has determined the action itself.
  Why is it possible for actions to be thus subordinated to operational conditions? At the level of action and activity, it is goals that are subordinated to motives and not motives to goals (alas, we do not give up the idea of being hungry if we find it difficult to obtain food).
  In the Uffizi in Florence there's a horrible and beautiful Caravaggio of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. Caravaggio has structured the painting along a diagonal of light that goes from the upper left to the lower right: the face of a thuggish and unfeeling old religious fanatic, his outstretched and threatening arm, the glint of sharp steal and the terrified face of the child held by the throat looking desperately out at the viewer. It's not just a slash of light; it's a sentence: subject, verb, object.
  But stand back from the painting for just a moment and look again. There's a naked (and suspiciously well formed) figure remonstrating with the old man. One suspects from the smile playing on the lips of the lamb of God that there is more than just a quick change in the operational structure of the action on the menu: Christ's sacrifice was, after all, not a sacrifice at all; he was immortal and unlike us could resurrect himself at the drop of a hat.
  When the angel remonstrates with Abraham, the action structure of the activity changes, as if it were simply a matter of changing the operational structure of an action. In life, and in the language classroom, the subject's opposition to the social environment is not quite so easy to elide.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Sat Dec 22 08:35 PST 2007

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