Re: [xmca] Helena on Negotiating Knowledge

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Sat Dec 20 2008 - 09:59:12 PST

Apologies to the list! I mis-sent my last (Korean website and comments on Volosinov); I'd intended to send it Mike alone. Well, we're all mispocha (spelling?)!
Sometime in the mid-1990s, I had a brief stint as director of a very small EFL program in a London business school. Professor Harvey, who ran the business school, had been a highly successful SMALL businessman, that is, a small businessman whose business (or rather his mother's business) had, almost against his will, turned into a very large one.
He had discovered that wartime conditions created a very different economy. While some lines of production connected to weapons became vastly over-capitalized, others, related to individual needs, reverted to cottage industry status. Not only were Londoners growing their own vegetables, they were also making a lot of their own clothes. Knitting and gardening were, for many Londoners, no longer hobbies; they were the actual means by which wartime livelihood was maintained.
So with his mother he had opened a chain of shops for selling knitting accessories, and these had become extremely successful. But after the war and the reconstruction, he had had the foresight to see that they economy was going to change again; Londoners were giving up gardening and knitting, and the now very successful chain would not really provide livelihood for his old age. Cleverly, he had parlyed his business success into an academic post and tenure.
His experience as a successful small businessman created an interesting tension between himself and his students. Many of the latter came from expanding economies in the far east and were interested in what they rather pretentiously called "the bottom line", which in the mid-1990s business models would tend to be operationalized largely by share price. Professor Harvey would insist that employee turnover was actually a better predictor of longterm corporate health. Yet for many of the students, the whole concept of longterm corporate health was uninteresting.
I mention this because early on in her article Helena contrasts, as motives, producing goods and services to protecting jobs and livelihoods. Later in her article she points out how protecting one's job can sometimes come into conflict with protecting one's livelihood, as when employers require speed-ups that are dangerous to life and limb.
I think this kind of differentiation of motive also occurs on the employers' side: producing goods and services is not, after all, the real motive (nor is maximizing share price, contrary to what our business students assumed); the real motive is the realization of profit and the expansion of capital. Professor Harvey, probably as a result of his small business background which gave him experience as both employer and employee, was acutely aware that this included human capital.
Helena deals with conflicting motivations by setting up two different activity systems that have different objects and different motives. But it seems that motives too are differentiable, and this internal differentiation doesn't seem to me to be captured by the distinction between, say, "motives" and "goals", or "activity" and "action", where the latter term fits neatly into the former (or as Leontiev says, the former is reducible without remainder to the latter).
Even Leontiev recognizes that in play does not conform to this: in play an action is not reducible to its operations because an operation has a completely different kind of meaning than the corresponding action (the way he expresses this is to say that the operations are sense-oriented, while the actions are meaning-oriented). The child operates on the stick as if it were a stick but acts with the stick as if it were a horse; the child who pretends a china vase is a basketball is nevertheless careful not to throw it like a basketball. 
This kind of conflict is a lot more common than Leontiev's analysis might indicate. Managers pretend that "producing goods and services" (or even "providing jobs", ha ha!) is their bottom line when they are applying for bailouts, but when they actually undertake business activity, they do so to maximize share prices and provide themselves with golden parachutes. Each in his own way is trying to do what Professor Harvey did, parley socialized risk into personal security, and establish an island of personal planned economy in the bitter sea of economic chaos.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education


xmca mailing list
Received on Sat Dec 20 10:00:59 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Jan 06 2009 - 13:39:39 PST