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Re: [xmca] Cultural memory

This is an interesting issue, Michael. There is no doubt that any artefact is (to coin a word) reconstrued continuously. This is why we have to locate our conception of material culture in a theory of Activity, because even though the sign mediates the activity, the activity gives meaning to the sign. (This, in my opinion, is where Vygotsky and Leontyev are better than Heidegger). So having a material culture does not set cultural memory in concrete, so to speak, but it does lend continuity. As Vygotsky likes to point out, words often change their meaning to the direct opposite, in the course of their history.


Michael Glassman wrote:
Hi Andy,
I have been thinking about your conundrum.  At first I thought that of course there is such a thing as institutional memory serparate from specific artifacts.  The memory is based instead on organizational structures and ways of interacting that are somehow passed down from generation to generation.  The meaning of artifacts can change with the times, depending on what role they are playing.  For example an obscure Buddhist symbol within a single generation became an extraordinarily powerful symbol for anti-semitism.  I remember walking in a recreation of a Buddhist shrine in China and feeling extraoridnarily uncomfortable from the symbols, even though I knew for sure they did not have anything close to that meaning for the people who created them or most who were viewing them.  So traditions of prejudice and oppression I might argue is passed down through social interaction structures in which mediating artifacts are inter-changable.  But there is a difficulty with this vie
w as well, because I think social groups have a tendency to think there is more institutional memory than actually exists.  We set up our memories so that what we are doing now is a recreation of what has come before - and then of course use this institutional memory as an excuse for our actions, "Well that's the way it has always been done."  So maybe its just best to be suspicious of the idea that traditions are actually transferred between generations - at least the way we think they are.


From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu on behalf of Andy Blunden
Sent: Sat 10/15/2011 5:38 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Cultural memory

Of course you are right Greg that language, whether spoken or written,
is the mediating artefact par excellence. But not everyone recognises
words as specifically mediating artefacts. The dominant trend of
interactionism today regards interactions as a subject-to-subject dyad,
and subsumes within each subject their knowledge and facility with
language use. So the status of words as artefacts existing prior to and
independently of the interacting individuals is invisible. Indeed, the
actually words do not exisat prior to the interaction, only the "model"
for them, so to speak. The distinction between a text (i.e., the written
word) and speech in this context is just that those who do not come from
Cultural Psychology or Activity Theory do not take speech as a mediating
artefact, but rather a function of the subject. This allows them to
pretend that a culture is recreated from scratch every moment as people
interact, and the subject's memory and continuing language-ability is
the only thing guaranteeing the existence of culture, recreating
appropriate words in the course of evey interaction.

I agree with you that the distinction between text and speech is
entirely secondary but in the context of arguing for the very idea of
mediating artefacts it becomes important, because my protagonist just
doesn't see the point of considering mediating artefacts, i.e., material
objects with social significance, at all. This is what forces me on to
the territory of "cultural memory." If cultural memory can be plausibly
explained without recourse to the idea of mediating artefacts, then it
is just as Deborah suggested, we must agree to disagree, it's just a
difference of preference.

Do you see what I am getting at?

Greg Thompson wrote:
Seems like you're in a pinch Andy. The way you've phrased the problem
makes it something of a riddle to me, for a number of reasons. How do
you pass things by word of mouth but not with texts? Unless by "texts"
you meant written words, in which case, what do you make of oral
"texts" passed down through generations? There are other sorts of ways
in which thickly culturally mediated words and practices, similar to
the things that Lucas mentioned, are passed down through the
generations. So I'm with Lucas that there are lots of examples of
cultural practices (activities?) that get passed on from generation to
generation without necessarily having land or artifacts tied to them.
But I also disagree with your "protagonist."

I'd locate the problem somewhere in the notion that words of the mouth
are unmediated expressions of subjectivity. Two big problems here,
first, words, second subjectivity. Taking the second first (b.c. you
seem to suggest that he is positing that "words" are unmediated - more
on that later), if subjectivity has thickly social origins, i.e. is
mediated by culture and place, then aren't things issuing forth going
to be mediated by culture. Volosinov and Bakhtin provide some of the
best thinking about this (I'd strongly suggest Volosinov's Chapter 3
of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, titled Language and
Objective Psychology).

For me, Andy, the problem arises when you accept your protagonist's
claim that language simply and straightforwardly brings what is inside
out. You skim over language as a mediating artifact. I think there's
been some talk about this lately (some in disagreement with my
position), but I just don't see how you can leave language out as a
mediating artifact.
But maybe you can give some convincing examples?
And maybe I'm missing the larger point of your position.

But I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the times as one in
which people don't see the mediating artifacts around them (I
regularly teach about my favorite mediating artifact: language!). I
think the success of the American TV show Survivor provides good
evidence of the Robinsonade-like fantasies of people today who imagine
themselves as great heroes surviving in the wild. (and I'd add that
Volosinov's other well-known book, Freudianism, speaks very well to
the fantasies of the bourgeousie during times of crisis).


On Fri, Oct 14, 2011 at 6:54 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net
<mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:

    My point is, Lucas, that I doubt that this can be done in fact,
    without reliance on one kind or another of enduring artefact. I
    need a counterexample to be convinced.

    Lucas Bietti wrote:

        Dear Andy,

        Can these customs be related to ways of behaving according to
        specific social contexts? In a broad sense, 'politeness' in
        the pragmatic and discursive sense (to say the right things at
        the right time) could be a way of behaving handed down from
        one generation to the next based on imitation and  correction
        by verbal communication among members of the same epistemic
        community. This also depends on what you are referring to by
        'cultural memory'.


        On October 15, 2011 at 1:54 AM Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net
        <mailto:ablunden@mira.net>> wrote:

        > I need some help. I am having a discussion with a supporter
        of Robert
        > Brandom, who was at ISCAR, but is not an Activity Theorist.
        on the
        > question of cultural memory.
        > One of my criticisms of Robert Brandom is that he does not
        theorise any
        > place for mediation in his theory of normativity. He
        supposes that norms
        > are transmitted and maintained down the generations by word
        of mouth
        > (taken to be an unmediated _expression_ of subjectivity), and
        > (whether texts, tools, buildings, clothes, money) play no
        essential role
        > in this.
        > I disagree but I cannot persuade my protagonist.
        > I challenged him to tell me of a (nonlierate) indigenous
        people who
        > managed to maintain their customs even after being removed
        from their
        > land. My protagonist responded by suggesting the Hebrews,
        but of course
        > the Hebrews had the Old Testament. Recently on xmca we had
        the same
        > point come up and baseball culture was suggested, and I
        responded that I
        > didn't think baseball-speak could be maintained without
        baseball bats,
        > balls, pitches, stadiums, radios, uniforms and other
        artefacts used in
        > the game.
        > Am I wrong? Can anyone point to a custom maintained over
        > without the use of arefacts (including land and texts as
        well as tools,
        > but allowing the spoken word)?
        > Andy
        > --
        > *Andy Blunden*
        > Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1
        > Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
        <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy/ <http://home.mira.net/~andy/> >
        > Book: http://www.brill.nl/default.aspx?partid=227&pid=34857
        > __________________________________________
        > _____
        > xmca mailing list
        > xmca@weber.ucsd.edu <mailto:xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
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    *Andy Blunden*
    Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1
    Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/ <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy/ <http://home.mira.net/~andy/> >
    Book: http://www.brill.nl/default.aspx?partid=227&pid=34857

    xmca mailing list
    xmca@weber.ucsd.edu <mailto:xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>

Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Sanford I. Berman Post-Doctoral Scholar
Department of Communication
University of California, San Diego


*Andy Blunden*
Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1
Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
Book: http://www.brill.nl/default.aspx?partid=227&pid=34857

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