As part of my research into the early Soviet context in which activity theory was developed, I picked up this book. Like The Gulag Archipelago, it examines the development and social impact of the brutal penal system that thrived under Stalin; unlike that book, it was written after the fall of the Soviet Union and with access to archival records that document the Gulag’s development and operation. Thus the book is far more heavily documented than Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece and allows us to understand some aspects that he could only guess at.
This book covers 1929-1941, beginning with the Stalinist period and ending with the opening of war with Germany. It confirms some of Solzhenitsyn’s arguments: (1) the Gulag established forced labor—let’s call it what it is, slavery—as a key part of the Soviet economy; (2) the results of the forced labor were terror and poor quality work (see p.185: “The Gulag economy was never effective, and it survived only through the massive, uncontrolled exploitation of forced labor); (3) children, especially orphans, were hardest hit (see especially p.123); (4) the Gulag relied on false confessions and false witnesses to collect more people for forced labor camps (p.151).
The book also discusses how, in the years of the Great Terror, officials “fabricated charges of an ‘anti-Soviet underground’ in the camps” (p.223), charges that fit into the paranoia of the early USSR.
In the early 1930s, the author concludes, about a sixth of the adult population in the USSR was subject to repression and persecution—a broad category that includes the Gulag, execution, and exile, but also discrimination and loss of jobs (p.304). From 1930-1940, the number of convictions approached 20 million people (p.305). When the war started in 1941, Gulag divisions held a total of about 4 million people, plus 2 million more in corrective labor (p.328).
The author concludes: “Thus, the Gulag spread beyond the barbed wire. Society absorbed the criminal mindset, the reliance on violence, and the prison culture” (p.344).
Yes, of course you should read this book. The author’s analysis is important, but equally important are the documents and correspondence he includes from the archives, including correspondence among top officials as they developed the Gulag, told each other stories about the threats the Gulag was addressing, and (surprisingly often) told each other the truth about its appalling conditions.
Entrepreneurship is an important topic across a range of areas—from small businesses to big businesses, from for-profits to nonprofits, from technologies to services. Entrepreneurs have leveraged methodologies and heuristics, including a bewildering number of canvases and dashboards, as well as user research strategies such as Design Thinking. They present pitches, write business proposals, and conduct market research. They pivot, they make value propositions, and they draw on multiple sources and types of evidence.
In other words, entrepreneurs are rhetors. They argue, persuade, and communicate constantly.
But so far, scholars in professional communication have not extensively studied how entrepreneurs communicate and argue: how they develop pitches, how they analyze arguments, how they teach entrepreneurship to others, how they sense the kairos of the pivot, how they coconstruct value propositions with others. We haven’t developed many cases, methodologies, or theories on how this vital work gets done. And we should.
That’s why I am calling for papers on two special issues:
In this special issue, the focus is on mapping entrepreneurship communication practices in professional communication, especially (but not exclusively) in the contexts of technology and engineering. We’re interested answers to in questions such as these:
- What genres and heuristics do people need to learn as they become entrepreneurs? How do they learn them?
- How do entrepreneurs communicate in specific situations? What are their challenges, and how can we help them to meet those challenges?
- What challenges do technical and professional communicators themselves face as they function as entrepreneurs?
- What skills, genres, and heuristics should professional communicators learn as they prepare to function as entrepreneurs?
- What should educators be teaching students in professional communication about entrepreneurship? Conversely, what should educators be teaching students in entrepreneurial contexts about professional communication?
- How can we apply entrepreneurship principles more broadly to professional communication?
- What trends can we expect from the next decade, and what innovations and shifts must we consider as we prepare for the future of technical communication?
We are seeking articles of the following types:
- Research articles (including integrative literature reviews)
- Case studies
- Teaching cases
If you’re interested, abstracts are due October 1, 2015.
In this special issue, the focus is on building theories and methodologies for better understanding the rhetoric of entrepreneurship across several different contexts, including open innovation, technology commercialization, social entrepreneurship, open source projects, entrepreneurship in education, and intrapreneurship. We are also interested in well-developed critiques of the rhetoric of entrepreneurship. We expect that these articles will collectively address questions that are essential for establishing a theoretical and methodological program on the rhetoric of entrepreneurship, including:
- How has entrepreneurial rhetoric been characterized in the research literature, both in professional communication and in other fields?
- How can we best theorize entrepreneurship in rhetorical terms?
- What research methodologies are best suited for investigating entrepreneurial rhetoric? How can we best provide an empirically grounded account of entrepreneurship as a rhetorical practice?
- What kinds of arguments do entrepreneurs make—in terms of genres, media, occasions, and types? How do entrepreneurs conceptualize, configure, reconfigure, and iterate their arguments?
- What kinds of entrepreneurial activities exist, and how does rhetoric enact and stabilize them?
- What is the ethos of entrepreneurial work? Does it differ from the ethos of other kinds of work, and if so, how?
- How can we bring our disciplinary insights on the rhetoric of entrepreneurship to bear on professional communication pedagogy?
If this is more your speed, abstracts are due November 30, 2015.
If you think you have a topic or idea that you’d like to develop, reach out to me as soon as possible. I’ll be happy to provide guidance. I’ll also be at Procomm 2015/SIGDOC 2015 if you’d like to talk in person this July.
Despite the title, this book really is mainly about Evald Ilyenkov, who is regarded as among the best of the Soviet philosophers. Not that that’s high praise—Soviet philosophy doesn’t have a good reputation, largely because it was severely constrained by the dominant Soviet ideology. But Ilyenkov, like Vygotsky, made a genuine effort to build on the ideas of his predecessors rather than to be constrained by them. And Ilyenkov, like Vygotsky, ran into resistance because of this.
Soviet philosophy, Bakhurst says, was largely built on Lenin and the principles and laws of dialectics that he endorsed (pp.12-13). This philosophy became “official” under Stalin, leading one dissident, the exile Berdyaev, to lament that Soviet philosophy was not a philosophy at all—it was a theology that caricatured Christianity (quoted on pp.98-99).
Ilyenkov wanted to escape that dogma. One of his focuses was the dialectical method, specifically the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete. As Bakhurst summarizes the discussion, Ilyenkov argues that “concreteness is… a property of the object of cognition” (p.139)—an object that is “a unity of opposites,” that is, a contextualized, internally dynamic instantiation. The dynamism comes from the tensions of the internal relations and yields “changes issuing in the development of the whole” (p.139). In contrast, the abstract is isolated from these relations, in relative autonomy, partial. An abstract conception is one-sided and partial (p.141).
Another focus was the ideal. Soviet philosophy had avoided the ideal, seeing it as nonmaterialist. But Ilyenkov argued that the ideal can have an objective existence, which it owed to human activity (that is, it didn’t reside in the head or the ether but in activity) (p.180). For instance, human activity is what turns objects into artifacts, not through mental projections but in material activity (pp.181-182; compare to how we talk about genre in the Bakhtinian/North American genre theory tradition). Following Vygotsky, Ilyenkov says that words are one important subclass of idealized natural objects (p.186). Bakhurst summarizes, “as human beings change the world to conform to their needs, so their ends and powers become embodied or ‘congealed’ in natural objects” (p.186). This assertion is in line with Marx’s idea of objectification, of course, but Bakhurst says that Ilyenkov takes this idea further: first, “objectification is construed as the basis of a form of self-consciousness,” and second, “the humanization of the world is held to transform nature into a different kind of environment. Ilyenkov reads humanization as idealization” that transforms the material environment into a meaningful environment (p.187).
Thus, Ilyenkov asserts, activity is the key to explaining the world-in-itself. But Ilyenkov does not flesh out this argument, Bakhurst notes (p.202).
Ultimately, Bakhurst does a good job here of contextualizing Ilyenkov’s project within the Soviet milieu as well as describing the project and its limitations. If you’re interested in Soviet thought, and especially how Ilyenkov impacts activity theory, certainly you should pick up this book.
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.