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[xmca] O Reason Not the Need!
Andy remarks, in a recent post, that Vygotsky did not sufficiently take into account the OBJECT orientedness of activity. I’m not exactly sure what he means by that.
Vygotsky certainly did take “goal orientation” into account (just as Ach and Uznadze and Rimat did). Goal orientation was the central innovation of his whole experiment in Chapter Five of Thinking and Speech. But Vygotsky went further than goals and aims in his analysis of the activity in Chapter Five; as he says, one cannot explain the trajectory of a cannon shell simply by referring to the aim of the gunner.
Andy himself has criticized Vygotsky’s epigones for an OBJECTIVIST distortion of Vygotsky’s teachings. I can really think of no better example of this than Leontiev’s claim that without an object there is no activity at all. What about play?
Play cannot be reduced to object-oriented activity without doing extreme violence to the whole concept of an object. The “object” of play is an imaginary situation or an abstract rule, but this object cannot exist independently of the activity of play itself (when it does, e.g. in stamp collecting, we quite properly cease to refer to the activity as play). So “explaining” play by reference to its “object” is tautological: play exists by virtue of its tendency to bring play into being.
Leontiev got around this problem by arguing that play exists by virtue of its tendency to bring adult forms of labor into being. So the child who plays at being a pickpocket is merely practicing for a lucrative career in petty larceny, and the child who plays the policeman who apprehends him is working out his frustration at being for the moment too young to actually break arms and bash heads.
The adultomorphism of this position was obvious to Gunilla Lindqvist. But there is plenty of empirical evidence against it too. Eugene Subbotsky points out that five year olds will also play at being three year olds, but will in fact refuse to drink a “magic potion” which (they are told) will make them refer to being at three year old.
Let’s suppose that play takes into account object oriented activity, but goes further; the key role of e-motion that Larry and Rod have remarked upon is the generosity and open-handedness of the child’s creativity, and not its parsimony and object-orientation.
Let’s suppose that play stands head and shoulders above the satisfaction of needs. Let us suppose that the very precondition of play is a surfeit of sufficiency, and THAT is why it is a source of both heightened emotions and higher ones than might attend the satisfaction of actual needs.
At the beginning of Chapter Two of her remarkable book “Beyond Modularity”, Annette Karmiloff-Smith has the following epigraph from a four year old:
CHILD: What’s that?
MOTHER: It’s a typewriter.
CHILD: No, you’re the typewriter. That’s a type-write.
Karmiloff-Smith points out that what is remarkable about this example is not the neologism itself: that’s understandable enough on the basis of the statistical regularities found in words that would be common enough in a four-year-old vocabulary: “teacher”, “worker”, and even “mother”, “father”, “sister”, and “brother”.
What is remarkable is the lack of economy in the child’s contribution, the desire to go WELL beyond naming to acquire the very principle of the nominative function. To put this in less linguistic and more politically charged terms, what is remarkable is the contested asymmetry of the exchange, the child’s desire to move from a fairly successful question-answer exchange to master the naming system itself.
Karmiloff-Smith says “What is special about humans is that they spontaneously go beyond successful behavior” (p. 32). What is special about toddlers is not that they try to imitate adults by walking instead of crawling, but rather that they willingly give up a perfectly successful strategy for one that is initially far less so. I suppose the Leontiev view is that they do this because they aspire to being adult bipeds rather than quadrupeds.
A less philistine, and more likely, view is that walking for toddlers is an extreme sport, i.e. a form of play. What Wolff-Michael calls the “positive emotional valence” of play is certainly an initializing factor. But one of the first things that Vygotsky insists upon in his “play” lecture at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute in 1932 (which is in Chapter Seven of Mind in Society) is that it is wrong to see play as the satisfaction of needs, and one of the last things he insists upon in this lecture is that children will go on playing even when the emotional valence of the activity is extremely negative.
To say that child development is driven not by lack but by surfeit is not so very different from what we must say, as Marxists, when we consider economic development objectively and historically. We all know that what REALLY drives capitalist development (including crises) is not scarcity at all, and in fact capitalism viewed from the optic of scarcity has been an all around failure. What drives capitalist development is overproduction.
So it seems to me that there is every reason to see not only play but also speech and even thinking as superfluous (that is, “overflowing”) in terms of their needs and thus in terms of their objectives and even their objects.
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous
Allow not nature more than nature needs
And man’s life is cheap as beast’s.
(King Lear, Act II, Scene IV)
Seoul National University of Education
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