This review is part of my ongoing investigation into the roots of Soviet activity theory. I did not anticipate having to read Lenin, but he is cited extensively by Ilyenkov and less so by Leontiev, and his legacy certainly impacted the Soviet Union. Below, I attempt a thumbnail sketch of the following works in this volume: What is to be done?; Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism; and The state and revolution. I won’t cover The development of capitalism in Russia except to note that Lenin preferred capitalism to the feudalism from which Russia had so recently emerged (p.32) partly because it was a relatively progressive development (p.46).
What is to be done?, published in 1902, focused on Bolshevik control and discipline as the party attempted to maintain ideological purity and to survive the Tsar’s forces. I remarked on Twitter that it should have been called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Lenin: Lenin strenuously argues that any divergence from socialist ideology bolsters bourgeois ideology (p.82). and is tantamount to the abandonment of socialism (p.83). The class political consciousness, he says, can only be brought to workers from the outside (p.112); the theory of socialism came from the intelligentsia (p.74); the role of the vanguard can only be fulfilled by a party guided by an advanced theory (p.70). All of these claims suggest a revolution centrally controlled by intelligentsia, by professional revolutionaries (p.147). In the repressive climate of prerevolutionary Russia, he argues, we must create a conspiracy (p.158)! Here in the 21st century, I can see how this repressive environment helped to shape Lenin’s paranoid, tightly controlled style of governance.
Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism was written in 1916, when Lenin was in exile. He wrote it to get past the Tsar’s censors. But it was only published in September 1917, after the February revolution and at the eve of the October revolution. According to my research assistant, Mr. Google, this text is considered to be the antithesis of Schumpeter’s 1919 State imperialism and capitalism: Whereas Lenin regarded imperialism to be the natural end of capitalism, Schumpeter regarded imperialism as a sign that feudal aspects survive in capitalism. In any case, Lenin uses data from the US and Europe to argue that entrepreneurship rises when the number of competing enterprises is low (p.182); that capitalism leads to imperialism via cartels (p.183); that the imperialist stage of capitalism is a transition from free competition to socialism, in which production is socialized but appropriation is private (p.186). He also argues that rapid technological process leads to more disturbances in coordination across industry (true), and this leads to more monopolies as firms try to get a handle on these disturbances (p.189). When Lenin accuses monopoly as penetrating into every sphere of public life, I imagine him eagerly taking notes (p.212).
The state and revolution, Lenin’s major work, was mostly written in exile in Switzerland in early 1917, then published in August 1917, just before the October revolution. Here, Lenin argues against democracy, saying that it is fundamentally incompatible with Leninism. The argument goes like this: The State is a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonism (p.273). It is set above and alienated from society; liberation requires the destruction of the apparatus of state power (p.274). So even socialists such as the Mensheviks—who supported a democratic socialism—were playing into the hands of the bourgeoise by insisting on a “modern” state; democracy was simply another way of prolonging the state and the class antagonisms that manifested it (p.270). When class struggle is abolished, Lenin argues, the state will wither away (p.280).
Lenin draws from Engels for this account, but he corrects (?) readers who have read Engels too hastily. It is not the bourgeois state that will wither away, but the proletarian state. The bourgeois state must be overthrown and replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, one that represented the proletariat’s repression of the bourgeoisie (p.282). After all, “The state is a special organization of force; it is the organization of violence for the suppression of some class”—in this case, “the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoise” (p.287). Only when the bourgeoisie had been eliminated as a class could the state wither away. Obviously, then, the dictatorship of the proletariat was irreconcilable with reformism (p.286).
How will this happen? Building on what capitalism has established, the workers will organize production, relying on their own experience; “establish strict, iron discipline supported by the state power of the armed workers”; and reduce the role of state officials to mere management (p.307). Eventually, that managerial work (Lenin says) will die out as a stratum of the population, replaced by a rotation of workers who take on this task (p.307), all sharing the same ideology (p.344). As the state is abolished, so is organized and systemic violence (p.333). (Until then, workers should remained armed—p.345.)
(Note: Max Weber published his work on bureaucracy, Economy and Society, posthumously in 1922—five years after Lenin published this text. He argues that democracy only works because of bureaucracy, and I think his analysis would suggest that Lenin’s vision is unrealistic.)
Of course, this shift couldn’t happen until the proletariat had revolted across the world—until that happened, the dictatorship of the proletariat had to continue in order to guard against the influence of international capitalism (p.307; compare p.338). But it was only a matter of time before the proletariat arose against the bourgeoise internationally—this was not a matter of utopianism, Lenin declared confidently, but science (p.340).
Of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Individual countries became socialist and even communist, but the worldwide revolt against capitalism never happened. So the Soviet Union remained stuck in the dictatorship of the proletariat, growing a new bureaucracy rather than letting it die out. Workers were certainly not allowed to stay armed. And despite Lenin’s protests in this book, his vision did turn out to be impossibly utopian.
Should you read this book? If you are interested in the Soviet Union, yes. If you’re interested in the roots of activity theory, maybe. If you’re looking for tips on good governance, I think not.
This 2001 collection is drawn from papers presented at the Fourth International Congress for Cultural Research and Activity Theory. In his introduction, Seth Chaiklin acknowledges the “risk that this volume could end as an incoherent set of chapters” (p.20)—as so many edited collections turn out to be. I’m not going to pass that judgment, but due to my current interests, I’ll only discuss two of the 15 chapters.
In this introduction, Chaiklin argues that cultural-historical psychology, despite its chronological age, is still a “baby” (p.15), still “young as an institutional practice” (p.16). As Chaiklin says in footnote 2, he pessimistically expects that “institutional practices found in other psychological traditions will be recreated more or less in the cultural-historical tradition” (p.16). Yet “because we are in the relatively early stages of this institutionalisation process, we have the rare opportunity to attempt to form and develop these practices in ways that might be conducive to the epistemological assumptions that motivate cultural-historical psychology” (p.16). Specifically, Chaiklin intends to analyze the development of cultural-historical psychology dialectically (p.17).
An aside: I’m less interested in how AT is being applied by psychologists and more interested in how it’s being used by rhetoricians and professional communicators, HCI, CSCW, communication, and related fields. Taking up AT and applying it in these other disciplines necessarily means changing and institutionalizing it in different ways. And interdisciplinary fields (such as HCI and professional communication) tend to be more comfortable, I think, with the ambiguity that comes from bringing different theoretical traditions to bear on the same problem. So I’m less concerned about AT’s fidelity than the collection’s authors seem to be. But since AT did emerge from Soviet psychology, I’m still interested in seeing what psychologists think of its pedigree.
In terms of that pedigree, Chaiklin reviews some important points: the fact that the Vygotskian tradition was “suppressed” from 1936 (when the Pedological Decree was issued) to the mid-1950s (p.18); the spread in interest to Europe, Japan, and the Americas in the late 1960s-early 1970s (p.19); and, interestingly, this tradition’s spread to Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s (p.19).
Chaiklin attempts a definition of “cultural-historical psychology”: “‘the study of the development of psychological functions through social participation in societally-organised practices'” (p.21). This broad definition is meant to characterize a “multiplicity” of labels. Chaiklin also warns of a “danger for divergence in cultural-historical psychology” due to the multiple theoretical variations (p.24).
Ultimately, though, Chaiklin seems okay with the different variations as long as those different traditions can plug back into the main one. The other author I’ll discuss, Mohamed Elhammoumi, is not as sanguine.
Back in the main text, he continues: “dependence on approaches borrowed from the cognitive revolution and cultural psychology have resulted in oversimplification and misunderstanding of socio-historicocultural psychology, both theoretically and methodologically. Thus contemporary socio-historicocultural psychology is cut off from its explanatory and experimental potential” (p.201). In this chapter, the author attempts to restore that potential by recovering the “dialectical materialist tradition that was an important source of ideas for Vygotsky” (p.201). Here, the author emphasizes in Footnote 2 that Vygotsky understood the difference between Marxism and the “simplistic and dogmatic philosophical system” that Soviet psychologists tended to work under; Vygotsky intended to found his psychology on genuine dialectics (p.201).
So what does this mean? Elhammoumi argues that
socio-historicocultural theory is, after all, an extension of the materialist conception of history. A ‘domesticated’ version of socio-historicocultural theory is weakened by the absence of links to a materialist analysis. For example, analytic constructs that arise from a materialist conception of history are principles of ownership, production and distribution of wealth and resources. Socio-historicocultural theory needs to draw on these constructs in order to realise its potential to extend beyond the analysis of small scale and individual activity. (p.202)
He indicts “contemporary theorists of this school” for locking onto small-scale contexts—classrooms, families, work groups—and thus emphasizing “intention, shared meaning, individual or distributed cognition, memory, the development of speech and so forth. This construction overlooks the equally, if not more important, larger scale such as forms of social control and power, distribution of wealth, divisions of labor and social class” (p.202).
(Yes, Vygotsky tended to study dyads in classrooms and the development of speech, Leont’ev studied memory and personality, and Luria studied a variety of phenomena including memory, cognition, speech development, and shared meaning. But I think Elhammoumi would say that they consciously situated these within the ongoing societal and cultural changes in the Soviet Union; the Western psychologists he has mentioned do not take a similar view.)
Elhammoumi turns back to the classic texts of dialectical psychology: Vygotsky and Leontiev (p.202; Luria apparently doesn’t make the cut.) Like contemporary Soviet psychologist Andrei Brushlinsky, Elhammoumi sees the American adaptation of the Vygotskian tradition to be faddish and unscientific (p.203), and adds that “it is combined with an inadequate regard for the traditions within which their thought developed: the theories of the materialist conception of history and dialectical materialism” (p.203). Indeed, the concepts that these Western admirers have picked up have been secondary concepts (“the role of sign and word, speech and language, in the development of higher mental functions, consciousness and human action” and “semiotic mediation, symbolic processes, and cognitive processes“; p.203). The primary concepts were excluded: “social systems, ideologies, institutionalised ways of working, institutionalised ways of educating, dialectical materialism, alienation, social relations of production, psychological means of production, psychological mode of production of social concepts and psychological relations of production” (pp.203-204). Thus “social interaction may be named as a prerequisite to cognitive development but there is no follow-up analysis of the concrete relations of the social interaction” (p.204).
Elhammoumi names names here: “In their analysis of human cognition, socio-historicocultural psychologists (Bruner, Cole, Engestrom, Rogoff, Valsiner, van der Veer, Wertsch among others) kept out of their theoretical picture any reference to larger forms of human activity and larger processes in social life, such as the realities of economic structure, class struggle, realities of labour activities, and the realities of social interaction” (pp.204-205). He argues strenuously that Vygotsky cannot be understood without understanding dialectical materialism: after all,
Engels’ chapter ‘The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man’ played a crucial role in clarifying Vygotsky’s ideas. Engels concluded that in the process of anthropogenesis a form of activity was born and shaped the course of the human species. This activity is called labour. In the final analysis, labour marks the distinction between human individuals and animals, and marks the starting point of the historical development of human individuals. (p.205)
He quotes Vygotsky as saying that labor was the “fundamental pivot” that structures society. Therefore, Elhammoumi says, “Psychological phenomena have to be explained in terms of actual concrete life, the present social relations of productive activity and current activities” (p.205). These include “the socially organised practical activity such as work, principles of division of labour which govern human action in specific social institutions, the ways of working, ways of schooling and education, distributions of wealth and resources, and division of social classes”—and he goes on to discuss material production, institutions of power, laws, and collective action to change social institutions (p.206).
Elahmmoumi proffers six theses:
- Human mental functions, consciousness, and activity (hereafter HMFCA) in the individual are products of the social relations of production.
- HMFCA are mediated by signs and tools, giving rise to labor activity.
- HMFCA can only be examined via developmental/genetic analysis, that is, dialectically.
- HMFCA are rooted in historically organized human activity.
- Humans make instruments and tools of production, which in turn give rise to labor activity, which then regulates the social relations of production.
- HMFCA are framed and shaped by culturally organized human activity.
The above link goes to the version of the book I own; it looks like a later version is also available (Autobiography of Alexander Luria: A Dialogue with the Making of Mind). Both were edited or coedited by Michael Cole, who worked with Luria after receiving his degree in psychology in the US; in the Introduction, Cole movingly recounts his encounters with the great psychologist and discusses how he wishes he had had a better background to truly appreciate what Luria had accomplished or why Luria kept trying to get him to read this fellow named Vygotsky.
Cole also writes an epilogue, which we’ll discuss first because it provides some good context for the book. As Cole notes, this “personal account” includes few personal details; Luria briefly discusses his education and travels, but mostly focuses on how his activities fit into and reflected the development of Soviet psychology. This tack makes the book less personal, but reflects Luria’s well-honed instincts for staying out of trouble as he navigated the treacherous landscape of the Soviet Union during and after the Stalin years. Reading between the lines, as Cole does, we see Luria’s story as one of repeated interruptions and reinventions. For instance, by 1936, “Soviet psychology was a virtual minefield of explosive issues and broken theories” (p.216), so Luria—while staying active in psychology—went back to medical school full time, a move that allowed him to escape controversy and move into the related field of neurology (p.217). When Pavlovian reflexology was ascendant, he used its language; when his foray into cultural psychology in Kazakhstan was poorly received, he put it in a drawer for forty years. “Nowhere did Alexander Romanovich hint at the complex ideological and institutional constraints that had produced his various research careers,” even when they became available to the West (p.222). We have to read between the lines and put these pieces together ourselves.
Now to Luria’s part of the book. Luria starts with the 1917 Revolution, when he was only 15. The society was rapidly changing and, he recalls, everyone expected the society to make tremendous progress (p.17). During the early years of his schooling, utopian schemes were still in the air (p.19); conscientious Soviets were still trying to assimilate the details of Marxist philosophy (p.30), and Luria regrets that he did not learn it to his satisfaction. Fortunately, he soon met with two others who would become a troika dedicated to developing a uniquely Marxist psychology: Leontiev (p.31) and Vygotsky (p.39). Vygotsky, the leading Marxist in their troika, wanted to develop a system to synthesize opposing psychological schools (p.41). Here, Luria uses the H2O illustration that was used by Engels in Dialectics of Nature and later by Vygotsky in his own writings (p.42).
(Cole adds in his epilogue that Vygotsky “held that a new psychology could be derived from Marxist principles (p.204, his emphasis). Cole says that, based on his readings of a 1925 collection, Luria based his Marxist approach on Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach and Engels’ Anti-Duehring, while Vygotsky based his directly on Capital. Vygotsky also assimilated Engels’ Dialectics of Nature as soon as it was available in 1925.)
Luria recounts that Vygotsky called his approach instrumental, cultural, and historical, emphasizing the three interrelated aspects. As Luria points out, professional anthropology was in its infancy, so their Marxist psychology incorporated that aspect (p.59), especially finding inspiration in Durkheim’s claim that the mind originates in society rather than the other way around (p.58). And this brings us to Chapter 4, in which Luria recounts his trip to Uzbekistan. “The early 1930s were especially suitable for carrying out the necessary experiments,” he recounts (p.60)—the nomads were being led into collectivized agriculture, literacy, and “freedom” from religion. Luria recounts his experiments here with considerable economy while still providing the headline news.
From there, Luria describes his later work: on mental development in twins (Ch.5), verbal regulation of behavior in children (Ch.6), disturbance of brain functions (Ch.7), and, in the aftermath of World War II, neuropsychological work to address brain injuries (Ch.8). Chapter 9 recounts his later work on the mechanisms of the brain.
Luria concludes with Chapter 10, “Romantic Science,” in which he characterizes his brand of research as “to preserve the wealth of living reality” (p.174). He adds,
I have always admired Lenin’s observation that a glass, as an object of science, can be understood only when it is viewed from many perspectives [such as physics, economics, and aesthetics]. The more we single out important relations during our description, the closer we come to the essence of the object, to an understanding of its qualities and the rules of its existence. And the more we preserve the whole wealth of its qualities, the closer we come to the inner laws that determine its existence. It was this perspective which led Karl Marx to describe the process of scientific description with the strange-sounding expression, ‘ascending to the concrete.’ (pp.177-178)
And with this brief description of a modernist polycontextuality, Luria draws the reminiscence to a close.
This is the second reading for me (I first read it in grad school), but this time I felt tremendous sympathy for Luria. He dealt with the treacherous Soviet landscape by reinventing himself, excelling each time, but cutting his losses when he needed to change. I’m not sure if the interruptions he faced hurt him or forced him to become ever more innovative. Contrast that path to my current scholarly milieu in rhetoric and writing studies, which seems to offer hardly any constraints or actual dangers. Here, we are able to reach farther, borrow from whom we wish, and built legacies that face few challenges (perhaps because the stakes are much lower). We are free—free to prod, poke, criticize, and build on Luria’s legacy with few penalties. But we should also understand and respect how Luria and his contemporaries handled the obstacles that shaped his work.
Should you read this book? If you’re interested in activity theory and its history, of course you should!
The link goes to the third edition of this book, but I read the second edition (1994; reissued 2001). Fitzpatrick explains in the introduction that she has revised the book to reflect on the end of the Soviet experiment shortly after the USSR’s collapse—a fact that colors our experience of the earlier chapters.
I picked up this book because I want to get a better understanding of the milieu in which activity theory developed. So, as I write the review below, I’ll focus on a few key parts. But I found myself making notes throughout this book, which does a great job of discussing why the Soviet revolution happened, who the players were, and how this seemingly promising revolution lurched into the Stalinist purges.
Key to understanding the revolution was that Russia was a feudal society until the 1860s, when the peasants were freed from their legal bondage to lords or the state (p.15). Indeed, capitalism was seen as a liberalizing force by Marxists, including Lenin (p.20; 27); after all, capitalism was, in the Marxist understanding, a stage on the way to socialism. Partially for that reason, Marxists concentrated on cultivating the urban working class as their base of support rather than reaching out to the rural peasants (p.27).
Fitzgerald does a fine job of discussing how this cultivation progressed, sorting out the differences between the Mensheviks (who wanted a socialist democracy) and the Bolsheviks (who wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat, arguing that if the bourgeoise were not destroyed first, democracy would simply become a tool for reinstating the bourgeoise). She describes how, in the middle of the German advance in World War I, the Tsar’s failure to name a successor led to the provisional government in February 1917—an uneasy alliance between the soviets (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and other Marxist groups) and prerevolutionary powers. Many in the Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin, had been in exile in Germany; Germany was more than happy to give them safe passage back to foment revolution across enemy lines (p.50).
Eventually, the Bolsheviks overthrew this makeshift coalition and established Soviet rule. They negotiated a peace with Germany (which involved giving away enormous concessions) in early 1918 (p.70). Touchingly, the Bolsheviks were convinced that the proletariat were primed for similar revolutions across the entire world, and initially they believed that they couldn’t survive without workers’ revolutions in the other advanced industrial countries (p.69). When those revolutions failed to occur, they had to reassess. The dictatorship of the proletariat—which Lenin had initially seen as a transitional stage before the withering away of the state—could not pass until the worldwide revolution happened, and since it didn’t happen, the dictatorship became permanent. And as dictatorships tend to do, this one began to resemble imperialism (p.70).
A few months after the Soviets negotiated an end to their war with Germany, the civil war broke out, pitting the Reds (Bolsheviks) against the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies) (p.70). “The Bolsheviks saw it as a class war, both in domestic and international terms: Russian proletariat against Russian bourgeoise; international revolution (as exemplified by the Soviet Republic) against international capitalism. The Red (Bolshevik) victory in 1920 was therefore a proletarian triumph, but the bitterness of the struggle had indicated the strength and determination of the proletariat’s class. … They expected that at a more opportune moment the forces of international capitalism would return, and crush the international workers’ revolution at the source” (p.70). Fitzpatrick goes on to argue that this experience ingrained a permanent fear of “capitalist encirclement” (p.70) and left a heritage of authoritarianism, coercion, and rule by fiat (p.71).
Recall that this heritage mindset was in accordance with the dictatorship of the proletariat (pp.154-155). Lenin, who was quite authoritarian in practice, argued that someday, when the conditions were right, this dictatorship could give way to the withering of the state; at that point, all would have the same ideology and the state would no longer be needed. This vision is utopian, but the Bolsheviks thought they were immune to utopianism; for them, the vision was simply scientific (p.83). But until the rest of the world underwent the proletariat revolution, the end of the vision could not come to pass. The Soviet Union was in a holding pattern, using authoritarian means to jealously guard against the contagion of international capitalism until conditions were right for freedom to spread across the globe. (In the 1930s, even industrial accidents were being blamed on foreign provocateurs; p.164.)
We see the effects of this mindset over the next two decades. Lenin suffers strokes, finally passing away in January 1924. Stalin consolidates his power, makes industrialization his issue by 1925, expels Trotsky in 1927, and starts his first five-year plan by 1929. The Soviet hatred for bureaucracy is contradicted by their need for it, resulting in permanent ambiguity (p.105) and, consequently, shifting political sands (e.g., p.126). In 1928, Party control is asserted over cultural life (p.141).
The first show trials begin in 1928, as does the program of dekulakization (p.125). The Soviets begin to focus on the large-scale transition to collectivized agriculture (p.135)—recall that their power base was among the urban proletariat, not the peasants. (Also recall that it is in 1930 that Luria examines cognitive development among the Kazakh “beneficiaries” of this transition.)
Also during this time, radical innovation becomes valorized (p.142)—a boon to those who, like Luria and Leont’ev, sought to develop a uniquely Soviet psychology.
But of course, this time is also the beginning of the Gulag (p.147)—the network of labor camps that allowed the Soviets to simultaneously purge class enemies; supply convict labor for industrialization; and keep the populace in fear of being imprisoned, a real fear due to the ambiguity of the conditions in which such a conviction could be obtained. The NKVD enthusiastically undertook witch hunts in the upper bureaucracy in 1937-1938 (p.165).
And this is where this sad history ends. Fitzpatrick tells the story lucidly, compellingly, and with an undercurrent of sympathy—both for the revolutionary idealists and their eventual victims. If you’re at all interested in the history of this revolution, certainly pick up this book.
This is another entry in my series on writing, and the second book I’ve discussed in the series. As I complained in my first post in this series, “traditional academic publishing conceals the real work of writing,” and I wanted a space to discuss what is usually concealed. In this case, let’s talk about what went into writing this book.
Why did I write it? After all, I didn’t have to—my previous books have allowed me to be promoted as far as I can within the university system. The bottom line is that I like writing books. They allow me to construct longer and more intricate arguments than articles do. Your mileage may vary.
How was it constructed? My previous research books (Tracing Genres through Organizations and Network) were one-case books: for both, I entered a specific activity and used the chapters to discuss different aspects of it. Reading one of these books involved reading an extended portrait of a bounded case. This is the norm for academic case studies, and it yields a fairly simple structure, which roughly looks like this:
- Literature review
- 2-3 chapters discussing aspects of the case
- Conclusion and implications
Here’s the TOC for All Edge, with brief explanations for each chapter. (Forgive my old-school HTML table.)
|Chapter||What it does|
|1 Becoming All Edge||
|2 What Are All-Edge Adhocracies?||
|3 Stage Management: The Case of Nonemployer Firms||
|4 The Foundation of All-Edge Adhocracies: Organizational Networks||
|5 Working Alone, Together: The Case of Coworking||
|6 The Dynamic Structure of All-Edge Adhocracies: Activities||
|7 Lone Wolves: The Case of Search Engine Optimization||
|8 The Configurations of All-Edge Adhocracies: Hierarchies, Markets, Clans, and Networks||
|9 The Work of All-Edge Adhocracies: The Three Integrations||
|10 The Future of All-Edge Adhocracies||
The beauty of this arrangement was that it yielded some really nice integration in which the cases clearly related to each other. And the real payoff was in Ch.9, in which I was able to draw on all three of the previous cases and demonstrate that they all showcased the same basic phenomenon. Doing this was really important for ensuring that the book hung together as a whole—I didn’t just want a collection of chapters based on previously published case studies, I wanted to develop a new understanding of project-oriented work.
But that doesn’t mean that this outline simply occurred to me. I spent a lot of time with different configurations and rearranged the cases several times in order for everything to latch together properly!
How did I develop the style? As I’ve discussed in some of my other Writing :: posts (ex: Topsight), style has been a consistent concern for me. How can I write these books in a way that engages the reader appropriately? For Tracing Genres, I tried to write in a clear case study style similar to the research I had been reading in HCI; for Network, I consciously used a writing style similar to Latour’s, heavy with allusion and drama; in Topsight, I adopted a conversational style that I thought would be accessible to undergraduates.
For All Edge, I wanted to write a popular text that business readers would be comfortable picking up. This choice was influenced by David Russell, who told me I should write an “airport book,” one that people would feel comfortable reading on a plane. Although I am pretty sure that this book won’t be another Tipping Point (my editor and I had discussions about what that sort of book would entail), I think it should be accessible for business readers, undergraduates, and people from a wide range of fields. That focus led me to develop some angles to the argument that I wouldn’t have otherwise used; one example is in Ch.3, where I use the extended illustration of simulated wood on cars to describe why nonemployer firms try to look like bigger firms.
One thing I worried about when writing in this style was oversimplification. I didn’t want to appropriate the common business angle of boiling everything down to a simple, easily articulable principle that could be applied everywhere. (I think it was at that moment that I realized this book would not truly be an airport book.)
How did I get a publisher interested? This was perhaps the easiest part of the process. An editor at the University of Chicago Press was interested in manuscripts from technical communication folks, so Bill Hart-Davidson put him in contact with me. We had lunch at CCCC 2013 and hit it off.
How did I do? You tell me. I’ve had an advance copy of the book for a week, and I’m still excited to see it on the table. I have also been picking it up now and again and reading pieces of it. I think it stands up pretty well.
But then again, I’ve been living this book for the past few years. (I remember sitting with Bill Hart-Davidson and Mark Zachry in Mark’s living room during SIGDOC 2012, describing the complicated chapter scheme in the above table.)
But see what you think. In fact, some of you may be at CCCC2015 today, wondering what book you’ll read on the plane ride back home. Maybe All Edge could be your airport book after all.