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[xmca] Half a coconut

I recently had a chance to read more carefully Wolf-Michael Roth's MCA editorial on Solidarity and Responsibility.

I know that there was some prior discussion of it here, in a thread about the eyes of a coconut, but that seems to have veered off from what seems interesting to me in the editorial, which was highlighted by Derek Melser at one point. I don't know if I've missed any subsequent discussion, but don't find it in the archives, at least with a google search.

So here are some notes on the ideas and arguments in the editorial, for any who are interested. (W-M R and I have been on a firstname basis for a very long time, but he's "Roth" in the notes because it's shorter!)

Notes on Roth editorial MCA

Solidarity and Responsibility. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 16: 105– 116, 2009.

= Roth appears to argue from Is to Ought, from a holistic-extension notion of primal solidarity in being/doing, prior to discursive notions of voluntary solidarity, for a moral responsibility to respect, indeed to privilege uniqueness in the Other, rather than simple not-I differentiation and the corresponding notion of a constructed collective and its artificial solidarity.

= the notion of an ontological or pre-discursive, actional solidarity seems very close to Victor Turner’s famous _communitas_: originating in the underlying experience of co-activity, which is prior to social structural relations and can be glimpsed when these are set aside (his liminality, Bakhtin’s carnival)

= Turner also argues in parallel with Buddhist philosophy (prajna vs vijnana, or roughly intuition vs discursive reason), that difference is the product of social relations and discursive semantics, while what precedes them is more holistic.

= the notion of partes extra partes with which Roth characterizes his view of the ontology of unique wholes is a bit ambiguous in the philosophical tradition

there is a Cartesian version of it which is atomistic – every part exists outside of and independent of every other part, and which leads to a view of space as consisting of just one damn place after another, only externally relatable

and then there is also the Leibnizian version, which I think is the one Roth is using, in which each thing or place is an extension or diffusion of its own unique qualities, but in which a principle like that of the mirroring of monads allows larger scenes to also be wholes, within which qualities may extend across what on smaller scales are parts apart from one another, hence providing the sort of holism of absolute differentnesses or uniquenesses that Roth seems to want

= Roth takes all this finally to classrooms, schools-as-educating communities, and the paradoxes of democracy. If we are all unique within larger wholes, then it makes sense to pay attention to others’ viewpoints when decisions are to be made, indeed the more diverse the input the more likely a good, or at least an as-thoughtful-as-possible decision.

Some such decisions are not really decisions, outcomes are largely predetermined by circumstances (habitual, predictable, routine); but others require breaking out of predictable patterns, choosing the risky or unlikely alternative, creating new options – and so new wholes, within which we all become newly unique-again. (Which, by the way, is in itself a good moral argument for democratic decision- making, since we are all always affected in fundamental ways by decisions. Despite our cultural and masculinist preference for the illusion of our independence. Being unique and partes extra partes does not, in the holistic paradigm, insure our independence, just the opposite. This might go some way towards explaining the popularity of Cartesian atomism, where we can just ignore the other atoms.)

Voluntarist solidarity, Roth is arguing, I think, is dangerous because it presupposes the atomist Cartesian ontology of our being: we begin and remain autonomous, we choose to come together in communities. What can be chosen, can also not be chosen. What is voluntary can be suspended, delegated to dictators, elites, teachers, curriculum bureaus.

Holistic solidarity, like communitas, on the other hand arises in our being and doing together, which is a condition into which we are born and from which we never entirely depart (having internalized so much of it before we even try to get away). But it is nonetheless a condition that also reinforces our uniqueness (or supports it, or from which it is emergent, depending on your metaphysics), and from which we can no more get away than we can get away from ourselves.

But I am still not entirely sure that Roth is not over-claiming on how much democratic Ought is derivable from the holistic Is. Bakhtin is fairly casual about the logic of the ideational and the axiological (in his later terms), or the twin answerabilities of response and responsibility. I am not well enough read in Levinas to say in his case. Personally I don’t see why we should want to ground the moral- ethical in the ontological, in the nature of things. Isn’t that theology? Because a God exists, we should do what He says? Isn’t a secular philosophical version of this kind of argument just another desire to privilege the ontological, the factual, the true over the Good?

For me the good, the ought, in its many forms and aspects, has its own standing, equal with the true, and not subordinate to it. The good and the true, or by degrees as we really experience them, the more or less desirable, the more or less likely, along with the more or less important, the more or less surprising, serious/humorous, mysterious/ comprehensible, etc. all stand as equal partes extra partes in relation to one another.

As they do in the semantics of our language. And I think as they also do experientially and phenomenologically, though the holism of experience will be something not so neatly corresponding to semantic categories, will feel like something more of a mish-mash, at least as seen from the neat typologies of language and philosophy done in language.

From here this discussion could go in many directions, so I will stop for now and see what others may say.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

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