Re: [xmca] Excerpts (second part)

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Fri Dec 19 2008 - 13:38:03 PST

Dear Haydi:
Like you (and unlike Andy), I am rather partial to long quotations. But like Andy (and unlike you) I have a lot of reservations about long quotations from Leontiev. I actually have the text that you sent; more, I have a fancy little program from Adobe Reader that allows me to add margin notes.
Believe it or not, this has made a big difference in the way I read my e-copy of "Activity, Consciousness, and Personality" as compared to the way I read that much-coveted hard copy of "Problems of the Development of Mind". With the hard copy, I scrawl cryptic comments, a form of written egocentric speech, which years later I find I myself don't really understand any more (e.g. "ANL is FUNCTIONAL not FUNCTIONALIST!!!!!"). But with the e-copy, the margin space is potentially infinite and I just let my fingers fly. So the result is much less like self-directed speech, much less context-dependent, much more elaborated. I can read and understand it years later.
I think that the GOAL in each case is identical. In each case I want to make some mark that will record and then allow me to reproduce a thought I had in reading. But the artifacts are sufficiently different to engender very different speech genres which have very different outcomes. Of course, this is only a small example, and I am only one person. But over centuries and even millenia of cultural history, this kind of difference is going to add up to very different forms of consciousness.
Iin the section of notes that Mike sent around, one of the things that set his teeth on edge was LSV's statement that in Uznadze's experiments the goal (usually sorting blocks according to artificial categories such as "Gatsun" and "Ras" for "+big+heavy" and "+big-heavy") was identical for the adult and the child.
I don't have any problem with this: it's the sort of thing that experimental work allows us to say, and it's one of the reasons why we have to read experimental work as a strange situation. But one of key differences between cultural-historical situations and experimental strange situations is that the former last a lot longer, and eventually that means that little differences can make a big difference.
The other thing that is setting poor Mike's teeth on edge is the idea that a task consists of a goal plus the "constraints" upon it, that is, the tension between the subject and the mediational means, to use Wertsch's phrase. Mike has his own reasons for not liking this (it leads to theory where culture is only material culture), and so does Andy (it leads us in an obviously OBJECTIVIST direction).
My own reason for not liking it is that it leads in the direction of Leontiev's (and Wertsch's) version of activity theory, where mediated action is the main unit of analysis and source of functional differentiation and devleopment. This lead away from LSV's original SEMIOTIC unit of analysis (roughly, the word meaning, where a "word" is understood not as a lexeme but as a historically determined semiotic unit, like an utterance).
There's a terrific piece on Harry Daniels' "Introduction to Vygotsky" by David Bakhurst called "Social Memory in Soviet Thought". Don't be put off by the title of either the essay or the collection: it's not an introduction, and Bakhurst's paper is not really about Wertsch's "collective remembering" either (he disposes, very wittily, of that idea by saying that if his Siamese cat reminds him of his days in Manchester, that does not make memory feline!).
Here's what it's REALLY about. Bakhurst points out that Vygotsky's memory was buried, by the Stalinist gravediggers who enterred all intellectual life in the thirties, under three big rocks. The first was his "cosmopolitanism", that is, his non-Russian origins, both intellectual (his engagement with other thinkers like Freud and Stern) and pseudoracial (Jewishness). Bakhurst thinks this stone is now lifted; I am not so sure, because I think Western gravediggers have pretty much taken up where the Stalinist ones left off and a lot of Vygotsky's best work is now assimilated to and mired in Piaget, Bruner, and even neo-behaviorism.
The second stone was the Uzbekistan adventure and his use of psychometric tests. This was particularly unfair, because of course Vygotsky was one of the very first and most effective critics of psychometrics, particular Thorndike's. But like the first stone, this rock has not been entirely lifted; Vygotsky remains under the shadow of ethnocentrism and racism in a lot of the criticism of his work on "the child" and "the primitive" (even though he clearly distinguishes between them).
It's the THIRD stone that really exercises Bakhurst in this piece, the accusation of "menshevising idealism". You have to understand that this was equivalent to being called a "capitalist roader" in Cultural Revolution China (or a liberal in post-Reagan America). It was a death sentence, academically if not legally (Vygotsky was under a different kind of death sentence, and they would have had to hustle to keep him from cheating the executioner).
Bakhurst point out that the Kharkovites (Leontiev, at first Luria, later Zinchenko pere et fils) began their criticisms of Vygotsky's idealism in good faith: perhaps they genuinely believed in the power of mediated action was sufficient to explain semiotic phenomena without making "word meaning" a unit of analysis, they thought mediated activity was a more universal and a better unit for explaining human conciousness. From this criticism to the accusation of "meshevizing idealism" was a short and logical step, given the tenor of hte times.
Alternatively, it could have been the other way around. That is, Leontiev might have started his critique of LSV in bad faith, either as a rat leaving a sinking ship or as a ploy to preserve LSV's ideas by effacing his name and making tactical adjustments to his unit of analysis. From self-justification, the "tactical" adjustments might have become self-justifying and strategic. In LSV, thinking and speech have clearly different genetic roots. In aactivity theory, semiosis is a mere by-product of human labour, and human labour had teh same genetic root as the activity of animals.
Bakhurst concludes that "activity theory" as it exists in the USSR and as we know it in the West is still heavily burdened by this third rock, the belief that LSV's placing semiotic material at the centre of a theory of consciousness was idealist. But this rock is is really just a Stalinist distortion: with the help of two profound non-Stalinist Marxist thinkers, namely V.N.Voloshinov and Ewald Ilyenkov, the rock can be easily removed.
Voloshinov believes that consciousness, to the extent that it is human consciousness, higher consciousness, and not animal or vegetable consciousness, is made of semiotic stuff. The mind is a kind of text, and just as a text cannot be explained by the material on which it is printed or even the process by which it was printed, the mind cannot be understood except by looking, at every moment of consciousness, at who is talking to whom and above all why.
You can't follow a TV program by taking apart the TV set, or even by taking apart a TV camera. No semiotic material is reducible to the activity that produces or to the artefacts with which it is produced. Artistic content is not reducible to material (Michelangelo's David is made of stone, but it is not a statue of a stone), and consciousness resists being reduced to activity and the mediation of activity in the same way.
(Actually, I go a little further, or perhaps less far; I think the mind is not so much a text as a discourse, a continuing unfolding of texts. This makes it a little more like an activity, but it's an intrinsically social activity which is poorly described as the action of a subject on an object with a tool.)
Things look bad. If Voloshinov is right, then there is really not much point to the whole Kharkovite interpretation of Vygotsky on which activity theory rests. It represents a massive backsliding, a return to the Vygotsky of the instrumental act (1924-1929) and an abandonment of amost everything that was uniquely Vygotskyan about LSV (e.g. interfunctional relations, psychological systems, instruction/development, the zoped).
Bakhurst argues that there is a way forward from the Kharkov (re)interpretation, and it's even one of which Leontiev would approve. Ilyenkov says that human activity is simultaneously "ideal" (that is, semiotic) and material.
Now, I am a very poor reader of Ilyenkov; To me, the "ideal" is linked to the material as the potential is linked to the real; I don't think they are "dual" in any sense, because I think one always has clear primacy over the other. Mike points out that in the word "table" the meaning potential overmasters the physical stuff of the word, while in the log/table at which I sit typing this, it's really the other way around.
Microgenetically, we cannot conceive of a potential table without having seen and experienced a real one. Macrogenetically, it's the other way around; we develop the potential table first, and the real one emerges from it. I can't really see how it is "dual" in either case: real and potential seem more linked than distinct to me. This must be why Andy cavilled when I put forth this reading.
But Bakhurst is a very good reader of Ilyenkov, and he has no problem with the word "dual". More importantly, he sees that in Ilyenkov there is a real possiblity for putting semiosis back into its central place in activity theory, the place that it really MUST have as soon as we accept that consciousness is what has to be explained, and that consciousness is at bottom a semiotic process. 
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Fri Dec 19 13:39:37 2008

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