Reading :: Revisionist Revolution in Vygotsky Studies

Posted by: on Mar 15, 2017 | No Comments

Revisionist Revolution in Vygotsky Studies: The State of the Art
Edited by Anton Yasnitsky and Rene Van der Veer

In his foreword, Alex Kozulin—himself no stranger to controversy in Vygotsky studies—warns:

The book in front of us is provocative, one may say deliberately provocative. The authors basically claim that almost all we have read about Lev Vygotsky and his theory is a result of hero worshipping resulting in the cult of Vygotsky. The aim of the authors is to debunk this cult and weed out numerous historical and textual mistakes associated with the “Vygotskian narrative.” (p.xii)

 That’s a pretty good summary of the thrust of the book. All but two of the chapters are authored or coauthored by Anton Yasnitsky, whose work I ran across a couple of years ago when looking up information on the so-called Vygotsky ban. (The article I found, by Fraser and Yasnitsky, is the basis for a chapter in this collection.) Yasnitsky has published like crazy since 2008 and is listed on the back of the book as an “independent scholar.”

Let’s mine that Kozulin foreword a little more before diving into the chapters. Kozulin provides some background on the Soviet system, noting that “for practically the entire period described in this book there were only two places in Russia where psychology could be studied—Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg).” Thus “just by occupying the position of Head of the Department (or School) of Psychology at Moscow University, people like Sergei Rubinstein or Alexei Leontiev could exercise unprecedented control over the ways in which academic research was conducted and books or articles were selected for publication” (p.xiii). He adds that due to Stalinism, “from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, Soviet psychology was indeed intellectually isolated,” and that immediately after World War II, “in parallel to a supreme cult of Stalin a system of lower-level cults was created, so that in each area of life a ‘great man’ was selected as an emblematic example” of his domain (p.xiii). Yet Kozulin is not convinced that the Vygotsky cult, “which definitely was not created in the 1940s,” is of a piece with this system. He suggests that these tendencies had deeper roots in the French centralized intellectual system that Russia adopted even before the Revolution (pp.xiii-xiv).

In any case, Kozulin cautions, Soviet psychologists had two intellectual traditions: the written corpus, available “in print and often in a form highly distorted by the authors’ self-censorship,” and the oral tradition, in which “much of the discussion occurred during informal seminars conducted in the living-room or kitchen of their apartments” (p.xiv). He adds: “Sometimes the gap between these two streams was so wide that one could easily imagine them taking place in two different countries” (p.xiv).

With that introduction in mind, let’s get to the chapters themselves. I have typically found edited collections to be quite uneven and insufficiently focused, but this collection is a rare one: I found something of interest in every chapter. So let’s give each one subheadings.

Chapter 1: The Archetype of Soviet Psychology: From the Stalinism of the 1930s to the “Stalinist science” of our time (Anton Yasnitsky)
In this first chapter, Yasnitsky provides us with the broad sweep of Soviet psychology. He begins by noting the situation in late Imperial Russia, in which three distinct disciplines dominated: 1) speculative academic psychology, 2) empirical psychology, and 3) applied psychology (pp.3-4). There were not only enormous gaps between these three, but also fragmentation within each one (p.4).

With the Revolution, things changed. As Yasnitsky notes, in the 1920s “one of the key tasks of the post-revolutionary era was utopian ‘remolding of man,’ the creation of a new type of people, who will master their nature and uncover the yet unknown potential of human beings. These ideas were grounded in the pervasive post-revolutionary belief in the possibility of virtually unlimited personal growth and an active, creative attitude to the world”(p.5; cf. Bauer, Trotsky, and Vygotsky’s ‘The Socialist Alteration of Man‘). Post-revolution, Bolsheviks wanted Soviet psychology to be practical and Marxist, remolding the “old man” of capitalism into the “new man” of Communism (p.6). “Lavishly supported by the Bolshevik leadership, work was done on creating a pragmatic interdisciplinary synthesis of scientific-practical interventions and a higher-level theoretical paradigm that would encompass all human sciences and bring about a universal framework in which disciplines at different levels and from different spheres of application would work together as a complex, based on a shared methodological and philosophical foundation” (p.7). New schools sprang up in psychology as well as the other sciences. In addition, new disciplines (such as pedology and defectology) sprang up, although these tended to overlap in both subject and spokespeople (p.8).

But the end of the 1920s saw Stalin’s “Great Break,” which naturally affected all spheres of life in the USSR (p.7). In the 1930s, the whole rhythm of society changed, and central planning became more pronounced (p.8). “Nomadic quotes,” which signaled loyalty to science sponsors and political leadership, appeared on the first pages of publications (p.9). The Stalinist model of national science emerged, “the hybrid of state, Party, and science” (p.9).

By the mid-1930s, the proliferation of “revolutionary disciplines—such as pedology and defectology—was considered redundant. The disciplinary purge of the 1930s thinned them out, with pedologists taking their work to education and defectologists retreating to medicine. “The winner in the inter-disciplinary struggle for survival” was psychology (p.10).

Yasnitky argues that we can discern two distinct generations of Soviet psychology. The first generation was born in the 1890s and educated pre-Revolution in German-style gimnazia, consequently learning at least French and German. They were intellectuals and “remained for a while in the somewhat ambiguous position of Bolshevik sympathizers” although they came from bourgeois backgrounds. Fortunately for them, in 1936 Stalin invented the category of “toiling intelligentsia,” providing a legitimate stratum for these people to occupy (p.12). Subsequently, a small number from this generation dominated the higher reaches of psychology. For instance, “virtually all administrative power and control over national psychology in the 1940s was in the hands of” Rubinshtein—until he was accused of cosmopolitanism in 1949 and deposed from his supervisory and administrative positions (p.13).

The second generation was born in the 1920s-30s. They went through high school during World War II, and their education was “characterized by deprivation and continuous disruption,” including poor foreign language instruction. Their graduate work happened in the late Stalinist postwar period. This generation dominated psychology through the early 2000s (p.14). Yasnitsky notes that Toulmin discerned this gap and its effects in his 1978 article on Vygotsky (p.15).

Yasnitsky argues that Soviet psychology had these characteristics:

  1. Centralization and control (pp.16-18)
  2. Cliquism and patronage (pp.18-19)
  3. Ritualism (pp.19-21)
  4. Gap between theory and practice. Different frameworks dominated at different times: Pavlov (1950s-early 60s), Leontiev’s activity approach (mid 60s-early 70s), and Lomov’s systemic approach (mid 70s-1980s) (p.21), but these dominant frameworks were mainly applied as nomadic quotes “mainly belonging to the rhetorical space” (p.22; cf. Cole’s afterword to Luria’s autobiography). 
  5. Intellectual and linguistic isolation (pp.22-23)
  6. Cultism and hagiographies. This tendency included portraying a small number of great figures, characterized as good or evil, and often playing the roles of martyrs or victims (p.24). 
Yasnitsky further argues that the Vygotsky “cult” is an example of the last point. In opposition, he argues for a critical revisionism in which we holistically evaluate the record (instead of characterizing Vygotsky as a Great Man); carefully reconstruct the texts; compare histories; and devictimize and deheroize Vygotsky and his followers (p.25). 
Chapter 2. Unity in diversity: The Vygotsky-Luria circle as an informal personal network of scholars (Anton Yasnitsky)
“During his lifetime Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) failed to establish himself as the leader of an institutionalized scientific school in the human sciences associated with his name” (p.27). Vygotsky failed—in making this bald statement, Yasnitsky is signaling that he won’t be pulling his punches. He notes that the Vygotsky historiography began with his obituaries (by Luria and Leontiev), but the “school of Vygotsky” narrative—he says—emerged in the 1970s-80s around the time that Luria and Leontiev died, penned by their followers and students (pp.27-28). These, he says, were hagiographic—it’s improper to speak ill of the dead, after all. But during perestroika, this collective hagiographic account was challenged—specifically claims that Leontiev functioned “as leader of the school of Vygotskian scholars” and that “Leontiev’s ‘activity theory’ was a direct continuation of Vygotsky’s theory of cultural development” (p.29). 
This chapter seems to be based on Yasnitsky’s dissertation, which I haven’t yet read. Here, he cites Anna Stetsenko’s (2004) article on the Vygotsky Circle as a collaboration (p.30), then takes up the task of mapping the personal networks of Vygotsky collaborators (p.31). He notes that there is no contemporary evidence of a troika (Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev), but plenty of evidence for a Vygotsky-Luria partnership (p.31). Vygotsky and Luria worked closely, coauthored texts, and even studied for medical exams together in fall 1931 (p.32). 
Yasnitsky breaks down the history of the Vygotsky-Luria network in the following way:
Phase 1: 1924-1927. Vygotsky moves from Gomel’ to Moscow, receives his doctoral degree (without a defense—he spent much of 1925-26 in the hospital), and begins coauthoring pieces with Luria. He also works with colleagues and graduate students (pp.32-33). He also makes contacts with defectologists. He is uninterested in Luria and Leontiev’s work with Luria’s combined motor method (p.34). At this point, the works do not appear to add up to a unified research program; Vygotsky is searching for a research method and theoretical foundation (p.35). 
Phase 2: 1927-1931. Vygotsky and Luria form a circle, including coworkers and like-minded individuals, communicating frequently with them informally (p.35). This circle includes scholars working in defectology, clinical and medical studies, and child studies (p.36). Leontiev is included in the latter category, but is not understood as a central member of this network. 
Phase 3: 1931-1934. In this period, several members of the extended circle are working at different institutions—Moscow, Kharkov, Leningrad—coordinated by Vygotsky and Luria (p.39). The circle still includes scholars working in defectology, clinical and medical studies, and child studies, but now these scholars are spread across the three cities (p.40). In addition, these collaborators in the early 1930s include several former students of Kurt Lewin (p.40). Also in this period, Vygotsky attempted to organize the psychology department at VIEM in Moscow, but died in June 1934 before this work could be completed (p.41). 
Phase 4: 1934-1936. At this point, Luria and Leontiev both return to Moscow in 1934 to take supervisory positions (p.41). A “pile” of Vygotsky’s books are published in 1934-1936 due to the efforts of his students and collaborators (p.43). Luria is still in the center of the circle (p.42). 
Phase 5: 1936-1941. In this phase, the July 4, 1936 Pedology Decree launched a number of other criticisms, including Rudneva’s January 1937 condemnation of Vygotsky and some of his collaborators—Luria and Leontiev are named. Based on fragmentary evidence, Yasnitsky believes that Luria and Leontiev both quit their jobs in 1936-1937 (p.46). Luria may have relied on his father’s connections as well as his own connections—including someone with whom he had collaborated during his criminal studies of the 1920s. Leontiev wrote a critique of Vygotsky that he probably delivered in 1937. Through these actions and other connections, they weathered the criticism and in 1939 they gained supervisory positions in Moscow and Leningrad (p.46). “It is clear that from the end of the 1930s onward only those individuals who thoroughly understood the real meaning of Soviet science policy and the internal mechanics of decision-making in the country could make scientific careers in the Soviet Union” (p.47). 
Leontiev defends his dissertation in 1940; Rubinstein is on the committee (p.47). Luria joins the Communist Party in 1943 and Leontiev follows in 1948. And the two form the new center of their own network (p.48). 
Chapter 3. Deconstructing Vygotsky’s victimization narrative: A re-examination of the “Stalinist suppression” of Vygotskian theory (Jennifer Fraser and Anton Yasnitsky)
This chapter is a version of Fraser and Yasnitsky’s article. Here, they discuss the frequently told story of a ban on Vygotsky’s work from 1936-1956—a story that is repeated by Jerome Bruner in his foreword to 1962’s Thought and language (p.51), Wertsch’s 1985 The social formation of mind (p.53), and Joravsky’s 1987 article (pp.53-54). None of these are well sourced. The authors suggest that the story comes not from the written scholarship but from the oral tradition surrounding Vygotsky, an oral tradition associated with the inner circle of Vygotskians (p.55). 
The authors give us many reasons to doubt a “Vygotsky ban” beyond the lack of documentation. After Trotsky was exiled in 1929, he was put under a publication ban in 1932; but no such ban or mention by Stalin has been documented for Vygotsky (p.59). 
Perhaps a ban had to do with the fact that Vygotsky cited Trotsky a lot in the mid-1920s, before he was exiled? In later reprintings of Vygotsky’s works, censors often simply deleted the quotation marks around these passages or deleted the cites themselves; sometimes they withheld the publications themselves (p.61). But this didn’t seem to constitute a ban per se.

Perhaps it had to do with Vygotsky’s work in pedology, a field that was banned in 1936? Stalin supposedly found that his son had been judged mentally deficient by a pedologist—and 14% of 7-13 year olds in Leningrad were held back a year in 1935-1936 (p.64). Furthermore, pedology was judged incompatible with the emerging New Soviet Man due to its claims of hereditary and environmental causes (p.64). But after the ban, pedologists just flowed to the field of pedological practices (p.65). Still, pedological books were under an implied ban, and Vygotsky had written pedology textbooks (p.65).

Yet “the late 1930s saw Vygotsky venerated within the Soviet Union”—”his name and theories were referenced (and celebrated) at various times within influential texts during the period 1936-55” (p.65).

Was there a ban? Fraser and Yasnitsky suggest that perhaps there was a de facto ban, but not on the part of the USSR. They note that a multi-volume collection of Vygotsky’s works came out in 1956 due to the efforts of his family, not his associates; Luria and Leontiev did not make efforts to have his works republished; and the collected works of Vygotsky did not come out until after their deaths (pp.68-69). They cite Zinchenko’s claim that “Leontiev kept deliberately finding numerous excuses for not writing” the introductory chapter required by the first volume (p.69)!

This story is great gossip and works well with Kozulin’s claim of a Leontiev-Vygotsky rift. But it seems like thin evidence, and I’d treat it with caution.

Chapter 4. Vygotsky the published: Who wrote Vygotsky and what Vygotsky actually wrote (Rene van der Veer and Anton Yasnitsky)
Here, the authors put Vygotsky’s works in context. Almost half of them were not scholarly or substantial (p.78). Even Thinking and speech is more of a compilation than a monograph—the earliest part of the book was written in 1928, with most of the rest being written in 1934. Vygotsky had a period of self-criticism in between! (pp.79-80). They provide a useful table (p.80) breaking down the chapters, their authorship dates, and their original publication dates. (The chapters include a book review; a portion of an undergraduate textbook; and three book introductions.)

Which publications were most important to Vygotsky? They attempt to find out by looking at three separate documents that Vygotsky put together. (One was for a job interview) (pp.81-82). They also looked at his private correspondence (pp.83-84). Interestingly, this correspondence suggests that Vygotsky planned to publish Studies on the psychology of behavior in December 1927; by July 1929, he was not enthusiastic about the project (p.84). In fact, he underwent a deep crisis in 1929, realizing that some foundational concepts were no longer satisfactory (p.85). By the end of 1932, he lamented that “‘we focused attention on the sign (on the tool) to the detriment of the operation with it'” (quoted on p.86). From 1932-1934, Vygotsky studied pathology in medical settings (p.87).

The authors also look at Vygotsky’s abandoned works, including his manuscript on the crisis in psychology. Most of the ideas in this manuscript were published in other publications during his lifetime (p.91).

So what were Vygotsky’s most important works? The authors list:

  1. The psychology of art (his unpublished 1925-26 dissertation)
  2. Pedagogical psychology (his 1926 textbook)
  3. The pedology of school age (his 1928 textbook)
  4. Imagination and creativity in children (a 1930 popular booklet)
  5. Studies on the history of behavior (1930, written with Luria)
  6. Pedology of the adolescent (his textbook in three volumes: 1929, 1930, 1931)
The authors note that four of these and partially a fifth are popular science books, written for the money—including the book he coauthored with Luria. They also might illustrate Vygotsky’s instrumental period, since they were mainly written before 1930 (p.92). The authors suggest supplementing this list with
  1. Thinking and speech (1934)
  2. Foundations of pedology (his 1934/5 textbook)
  3. Mental development of children in the process of learning and instruction (1935)
  4. The mentally retarded child (1935)
Chapter 5. Vygotsky the unpublished: An overview of the personal archive (1912-1934) (Ekaterina Zavershneva)
This is one of the only two chapters in this collection that Yasnitsky did not author or coauthor. Here, the author examines Vygotsky’s personal archives: “the notebooks, scientific diaries, and scattered notes, which until the early 2000s remained practically untouched” (p.94). She was able to identify several unpublished manuscripts as well as reconstruct the full, uncensored manuscript on the crisis in psychology (Vygotsky cited Trotsky, Bukharin, and Radek) (p.95). 
The entire chapter is worth reading, but I’ll focus on a few things. One is that in 1933-34 Vygotsky created the concept of the cooperation of nature and culture, which precludes the notion of unlimited development that he had embraced in 1929-30 (p.105). Another is two letters from Kornilov, from 1925 and 1926. The 1925 letter praises Vygotsky’s dissertation and suggesting that they forego a public defense of it due to Vygotsky’s stay in the hospital (pp.106-107). 
Zavershneva notes that in 1930, Vygotsky advanced the system principle; in 1932, this principle led to “the appearance of a new theory of consciousness as a dynamic semantic system” (p.107). Based on this new theory, Vygotsky submitted himself and his colleagues to criticism, and along the way, intensified polemic with Leontiev (p.107). He complained that they had focused too much on the sign (tool) and not enough on the development of the operation with the sign (p.112). He also rejected Leontiev’s criticism that his focus was just on speech (p.112). 

They did not agree in their theoretical assessment of the processes involved in the transition from speech to thought. … Speech, [Vygotsky] said, participates as actively in this transition as thought itself; we should not present it as a picture, a cast, a sort of death-mask made of the living process of thinking. The role of speech is not just to fixate the thought or what remained of it after the translation of the thought into a tangible form; the word is not just the main carrier of the thought, its canvas, but also the carrier of consciousness as a whole. Leontiev insisted on the investigation of the practical action as the central theme, but Vygotsky did not agree: the dynamics of the action derive from the dynamics of meaning and in itself, separate from the ‘peak’ dimension of meanings, cannot be analyzed. (p.112)

Zavershneva adds that “the polemic between them became increasingly pungent,” e.g. in an October 1932 notebook (p.112). “We will not analyze this polemic in any detail, but it remains a fact that Leontiev from the early 1930s distanced himself from the study of consciousness as proposed by Vygotsky, although he continued participating in the work of the Vygotsky-Luria extended group, carried out experiments, and participated in the discussion during their symposia” (pp.112-113).

In 1932, Leontiev characterizes Vygotsky as claiming that all psychology was reduced to word meaning (according to his oral biography, which Zavershneva cites; unfortunately for me, it’s in Russian) (p.114).

Again, there’s plenty more in this chapter, but let’s leave it here for now.

Chapter 6. “The way to freedom”: Vygotsky in 1932 (Ekaterina Zavershneva)
Zavershneva authors a second chapter, again drawing from her study of Vygotsky’s archives. Here, she dives into “one notebook, dated October 1932, [which] stands out because it is one of the clearest and most accessible documents in the archive” (p.127).

The text consists of three parts: (1) the plan for the unwritten book On the question of the study of consciousness; (2) notes about the psychophysical problem; and (3) propositions for talks by Vygotsky’s co-workers Ivan Solov’ev and Aleksei Leontiev, presumably written during an internal conference for close collaborators. In general we may say that the text marks the turn toward a new psychological theory—the theory of consciousness as a dynamic semantic system—and also shows the emerging discrepancy between the views of Vygotsky and Leontiev. (p.127)

In 1930, Vygotsky introduced the systemic structure of consciousness; in 1932, he introduced the principle of the systemic structure “and the analysis of interfunctional connections lost its leading role to the semic analysis of consciousness” (p.128). “It is remarkable that below the title of the earliest draft of the plan Vygotsky wrote the names of himself, Leontiev, and Luria. Apparently, the idea was to include them as co-authors and Vygotsky changed his mind” (p.128).

Just an aside here: Much of what I’ve seen about a Vygotsky-Leontiev split has tended to characterize Leontiev as errant or even as personally betraying Vygotsky. But (a) people can have disagreements, (b) it seems awfully presumptuous for Vygotsky to outline a book and put his coauthors’ names on it without asking them, and (c) Leontiev had just seen Vygotsky and Luria’s 1930 book criticized for being insufficiently Marxist and very well might have wanted to avoid following their path too closely!

Back to the notebook. Vygotsky evidently planned to include the famed mnemonist Shereshevskii as a case study in the book (Shereshevskii would later appear in Luria’s Mind of a mnemonist) (p.129). Vygotsky also planned to discuss schizophrenia, in which speech splits from other psychological functions and the person loses the ability to verbally interact with the self—”a perfect example of the loss of the semantic structure of consciousness” (p.129).

“In contrast to his work from the ‘instrumental period’ of the 1920s, with its zeal for social ‘reforging’ and the creation of a ‘new man,’ Vygotsky’s work from the 1930s was focused on the study of the subject’s inner world. … For him the mechanisms of social mediation were not important in themselves; rather they contained the essence of man: they served as the ladder toward the new ‘peak’ psychology” (p.132). Young Vygotsky had been focused on the birth of the “new man”, and Zavershneva reads this focus not as following Trotsky so much as following the Zeitgeist (pp.132-133).

Skipping a bit: Vygotsky believed that “Leontiev underestimated the higher processes and showed a low level of theoretical generalization” (pp.138-139). Vygotsky believed that “the transitions between the cognizing and the practical intellect” had to be studied as part of the study of consciousness. “As soon as we understand the dynamics of meanings, we will understand all the rest as effects that follow from a cause and vice versa; separating the action from the dimension of meanings, we lose the meaning of the action, its goal-directed nature, etc.” (Zavershneva’s paraphrase, p.139). Vygotsky claimed that Leontiev “lacked discipline, lost the focus of the research, and ignored the systemic principle”—he was backsliding, returning to the functional analysis that Vygotsky had left behind in 1930 (p.139).

But Leontiev’s approach allowed him to make his career between 1930-1950. Zavershneva archly notes that except for the 1956 collection, Vygotsky’s works were not made available until after Leontiev’s death (p.139).

Chapter 7. Translating Vygotsky: Some problems of transnational Vygotskian science (Rene van der Veer and Anton Yasnitsky)
Van der Veer’s sometime collaborator Jaan Valsiner has examined problems in English translations of Vygotsky, as has Nikolai Veresov. Here, the authors review some of these problems as well as adding others.

Interestingly, they point out that Leontiev in 1954 was concerned about the rehabilitation of Vygotsky, so he approached a French scholar about publishing some of Vygotsky’s articles in French—a way to speed up publication at home. The effort did not pay off, but a volume of Vygotsky’s works was published in Russian in 1956 (p.146). In fact, the authors include an anecdote in which prominent Soviet psychologists (including Leontiev and Luria) gave an interview to a French journalist to get their message out, then corrected “mistakes” in Russian (p.148).

The authors then turn to the question of translation errors. They describe six categories:

  1. inaccuracies
  2. suppression of terms or passages
  3. suppression of names
  4. unidentified or suppressed citations
  5. insertions
  6. multiple retranslations (p.162)

Under unidentified/suppressed citations, the authors note citations of Trotsky (p.167).

Under multiple retranslations, the authors tell a fascinating and unsettling story. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, Luria gave Michael Cole a typewritten English translation of “Tool and sign,” which he and Vygotsky had authored sometime around 1930. Cole created a “cut-and-paste” version of it for Mind in Society (1978).  In 1984, an “apparently complete version” came out in Russian. In 1994, Luria’s typewritten English translation was published in The Vygotsky Reader. But the editors, Van der Veer & Valsiner, compared the English and Russian versions and discovered that the Russian version “missed several important pieces (such as illustrations) but was nevertheless longer,” and “it contained a number of non-verbatim—but semantically identical—repetitions of text fragments! The editors referred to rumors that the Russian text, as strange as might look, was in fact translated from English” (p.169, my emphasis).

But it gets stranger. In 2005, a former student of Luria claimed that he had participated in a “benign forgery” of the text (p.169). According to him, in the late 1960s, Luria “invited him to participate in the preparation of the collected works of Vygotsky.” Luria explained that they couldn’t find Vygotsky’s original manuscript. Would he translate this English version? “Apparently, this English translation survived and was subsequently handed from Luria to Cole, and then, by the latter, to Van der Veer and Valsiner” (p.170). But the authors argue that the repetitions of passages were due to a second translator who translated parts of the same passages. Then the whole thing was put together by the editor of the Russian Vygotsky collection (p.170).

One final twist. In 1999, the final volume of the six-volume Vygotsky collection in English was published. In it was “Tool and sign,” which had been translated from the Russian text that in turn had been translated from the English text that Luria had presumably prepared from the original manuscript (p.170).

Chapter 8. Did Uzbeks have illusions? The Luria-Koffka controversy of 1932 (Eli Lamdan and Anton Yasnitsky)
Famously, Luria sent Vygotsky a telegram during his expedition to Central Asia, reporting on his psychological testing: “The Uzbeks have no illusions!” Supposedly this was a dangerous telegram. Yet, the authors note, there is no documentary proof that such a telegram existed—it’s a good story, but an undocumented one (p.175).

The story also suggests that the study was suppressed for political reasons until the early 1970s, when Luria took the manuscript out of a drawer and published it (p.176). Yet, the authors suggest, there may have been much more to this story. They note that Luria published an English-language account of the expedition in 1934, apparently coauthored by an uncredited Kurt Koffka (p.176). This manuscript suggests that Koffka came away with an entirely different reading (p.177). Koffka essentially argued that Uzbeks who did not regard the test as a test of their abilities saw the illusions; those who were suspicious looked at the patterns longer before making their judgments (p.187). Based on Vygotsky and Luria’s correspondence, they learned of Koffka’s conclusions immediately once his article was published (p.187).

Luria and Vygotsky evidently saw the findings as proof that the Uzbeks were being transformed into the New Men of the Soviet state, despite their limitations (p.191). But in a Soviet Union trying to integrate its ethnic minorities, the findings suggested chauvinism—primitive people being lifted by more advanced ones (p.191). More than that, the propagandist “victory” of the Soviet experiment, declared at the XVII Congress of the Party in January/February 1934, killed hopes of the publication (p.193).

Why? The authors argue that Luria and Vygotsky had a vulgar Marxist understanding in which the relations of production determine psychological makeup (p.194). That is, they embraced economic determinism—which became seriously out of tune with the understanding of the Party (p.195).

One other question: Why were Uzbeks suspicious? We could read between the lines in Luria’s own account of the expedition, but the authors add that the region had experienced rebellions and unrest shortly before Luria’s expedition and “the arrival of a large group of Soviet officials and international researchers accompanied by a convoy of secret police forces was perceived as an utterly alarming and even potentially life-threatening experience by the local populations” (p.199). Luria seemed oblivious to the potential effects on his research, which sounds like Luria, all right.

Chapter 9. A transnational history of “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” The birth of the cultural-historical Gestalt psychology of Alexander Luria, Kurt Lewin, Lev Vygotsky, and others (Anton Yasnitsky)
Here, Yasnitsky notes the many connections between the Vygotsky-Luria Circle and Kurt Lewin, the Gestalt psychologist. Lewin influenced Vygotsky during his last period (p.203) and many of Lewin’s students went on to study with Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev.

The most startling claim here, unfortunately quite underdeveloped, is that “the ‘Vygotskian-Lewinian’ trend in Soviet psychology—although preserved in some very general sense—was considerably mutated and transformed” and “The mutant and hybrid that emerged as a result of all these transformations” was … activity theory (p.225).

There’s one more chapter, the Epilogue, but let’s skip it. I do want to point out Appendix A, a bibliography of all Vygotsky’s known published works.

So—that’s a long review. But it could have been much longer. This book was fascinating, thought-provoking, and worth mining if you’re interested in Vygotsky or his colleagues. As noted, I am still cautious of some of its claims. And reading parts, especially the chapters on the archives, has led me to think about the Vygotsky-Leontiev relationship in directions that the authors may not have expected. But overall, I highly recommend it.

Reading :: The Transformative Mind

Posted by: on Mar 1, 2017 | No Comments

The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education
By Anna Stetsenko

Anna Stetsenko has an impressive biography. As she describes in an autobiographical sketch near the beginning of this thick book, she studied at Moscow University “at a time when it was the hotbed of Vygotsky’s approach” in the mid-70s through the late 80s. There, she interacted and sometimes collaborated with A.R. Luria, both A.N. and A.A. Leontiev, P.Y. Galperin, D.B. Elkonin, V.V. Davydov, and others. After the collapse of the USSR, she worked first in Europe and then in the US (at CUNY, where she is currently) (p.15). Relocating, she said, was an eye-opening experience, allowing her to see new perspectives (p.16). It also led her to see the USSR’s 1991 collapse and the West’s triumphalism with a more critical eye; she sees the 2008 financial collapse as the other shoe dropping (pp.16-17).

Considering this deep well of life experiences, Stetsenko proposes in this book to develop Vygotskian theory toward what she calls the Transformative Activist Stance (TAS), an approach that “builds off from the dialectical premises of Vygotsky’s project and their broader foundations in Marxist philosophy” (p.4), one that attempts to address impasses in Vygotsky’s project and canonical Marxism, emphasizing human subjectivity “as a necessary vehicle of collaborative meaningful practices/activities of people aimed at purposefully transforming the world in view of the sought-after future” (p.5). Stetsenko draws on aligned sociocultural projects, but also works as diverse as feminist theory, Foucault, Bordieu, and Freire (p.5). That is, Stetsenko rereads the work of Vygotsky and activity theorists from the standpoint of activism. How do we apply Vygotsky today, and how can we positively transform our own world (p.10)?

Given Stetsenko’s deep biography and her deep study—conducted in Russian as well as English—I am cautious about critiquing her work. Yet I do have some hesitations about this work, which I’ll discuss more thoroughly below.

The book has five parts. Part I introduces the idea of TAS and the need for an activist theory. Part II reviews Vygotsky’s project, including its development through the cultural-historical school. Part III covers ontology, epistemology, and agency, while Part IV discusses mind. Finally, Part V outlines implications for education.

We can see the resonance between Vygotsky’s project and activism in Part I. From the Vygotskian perspective, “human capabilities and capacities are constituted in and through the process of development—as they are brought into realization in the course of people actively engaging in, contributing to, and transforming collaborative social practices that are culturally mediated, socially contextualized, and contingent on material resources including critical-theoretical tools … of agency” (p.25). This perspective seems like a good fit for activism, in which “development is about participating yet is also, and even more critically, about contributing to transformative communal practices from one or the other side, or position or stance, on their dilemmas and contradictions. … social change and agency are ubiquitous, endemic, and immanent in the world understood as a realm that not only embeds, grounds, and gives rise to human development but is co-created by social collaborative practices embodied in individual and communal ways of being, knowing, and doing” (p.34). The shift to an activist stance entails exchanging a viewpoint of competition and survival for one of collaboration and solidarity (p.36).

Stetsenko believes that this stance is crucial at the current historical moment, which she characterizes as an “ongoing crisis in social, economic, and political landscapes” in which education in particular is characterized by

an enforcement of a crude, narrow model of evidence-based, disinterested, value-neutral science that is devoid of theory and tailored to reductionist views of nature, human development, education, and mind. These models prize biological explanations that put human development in service to natural selection and adaptation; focus on isolated individuals as prime units of analysis; equate mind with the brain; and promote the mantras of neutral evidence, all taken as standards of what is claimed to be the only way to do objective science. (p.42).

She characterizes this work as “supernaturalist orthodoxy” and characterizes the orthodoxy’s view of research thus:

research is supposed to be based on presumably “naked” evidence composed of “raw” facts about “indomitable” nature and “pristine” reality (all supposedly residing in biological processes and phenomena)—as we find them “here and now,” somehow purged of human dimensions and independent from not only society, history and context but even from the more immediately situated processes and practices of knowledge production and research. (pp.42-43)

Unfortunately—and this is my first substantial critique of the book—Stetsenko provides no citations representing the viewpoints she is critiquing. The quotes appear to be scare quotes, and the sole cite for the paragraph is Gould 1988 (substantiating a more specific claim later in the paragraph). Although as a humanist I found myself somewhat receptive to this argument, it’s awfully broad-brush, and Stetsenko makes enough such arguments that I grew cautious of such characterizations. (For instance, on p.316 she does cite the viewpoints she is critiquing: she lumps Hutchins, Clark, and others into a single movement, then claims that those in this movement “still often do not go far enough” because they “leave intact the basic premise of the brain as processing information through computations.” Hutchins does emphatically see the brain as performing computational work, but this processing is not different in kind from other computational work being performed outside the skull—this is the very point of his book, which Stetsenko cites.)

Back to activism. Stetsenko notes that in the adaptionist ethos, sociocultural and critical approaches typically focus on challenging the status quo, but not on fundamentally changing it (p.62). Examples include Foucault, Latour, and Deleuze (p.64). Later, she discusses the activist limits of other sociocultural scholarship, noting that one ramification of many such views is that they imply that “extra-personal forces” (neurological processes shaped by genetics; collective cultural or power processes) “guide and shape human development and learning”—”eschewing the status of human beings in their own lives and communities” (p.79). Missing is

the transformative agency of people, qua social agents of communities and their histories, to shape and essentially create their world, their future, and their own development while relying on the social and cultural resources that they bring into existence and co-create in each and every act of their lives. (p.79)

And here’s my second critique. If you’ve been reading my recent reviews, maybe you are thinking of the same thing I am. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union was also wrestling with two views: a causal, determinist, teleological view of history and human development, and a nondeterminist one that put collective human agency and achievement at the center. Both were rooted in the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The first view, the mechanist or Bukharinite view, meshed well with early pedology: the assumption was that as Russia transitioned from a capitalist to a socialist footing, the new environment would transform the students. Some pedologists even called for a “withering away of the school,” in which schools would become obsolete in the new environment. The second view, the dialectical or Deborinite view, focused on human agency and became more popular in education in the early 1930s—when it became clear that a socialist regime in itself did not cure the problems of education. Vygotsky, who knew his Marx and was deeply influenced by the 1925 publication of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, arguably tended toward the dialectical. The Deborinites won decisive victories in 1931 and 1938 (i.e., Stalin endorsed their views), and pedology was banned in 1936. Hence, for political and historical reasons, activity theory tends to reflect the dialectical stance—if it had not, it would not have survived as a going concern.

On p.79 and elsewhere in the book, Stetsenko recapitulates the basics of the debate between mechanists and dialecticians—although she does not draw the connection explicitly, and I doubt that she sees the parallel. But the cultural-historical school and the activity-theoretical school were historical products, and understanding their history helps us to understand how they are predisposed to understanding human activity in specific ways. When Stetsenko complains that “many contemporary critical and sociocultural approaches” undertheorize “active human persons and activities,” and urges us to understand “the power of human transformative agency … as an individually unique achievement of togetherness” (p.83), she selects a research stance that was formed specifically to focus on that transformative power, and developed within a political milieu that mandated such a view.

Side note: This point made me wonder about something that Engestrom notes in his new introduction to the second edition of Learning by Expanding. Engestrom complained:

there is a risk that activity theory is split into the study of activity systems, organizations, and history, on the one hand, and subjects, actions, and situations, on the other hand. This is exactly the kind of split the founders of activity theory set out to overcome. To bridge and integrate the two directions, serious theoretical and empirical efforts are needed. (p.xvi)

I now wonder if this split interacts with the latent tension between mechanist (contextually oriented, causal) and dialectical (individually oriented, agential) traditions. Now there’s a dissertation topic if someone is looking for one.

Back to Stetsenko. At the end of this discussion, she argues that Vygotsky’s “passionate quest for equality and justice” has been “all but ignored” in the West (p.89, her emphasis). “The project of immediate relevance to Vygotsky and his colleagues consisted of efforts at creating a new system of education for society that was in the process of being created and forged, practically from scratch” (p.89), and like Vygotsky, Stetsenko “commits to matters of equality as the first analytical step” (p.90). She adds that this method is “the very gist of Vygotsky’s project”: an egalitarian society for a future society. “This future society cannot be charted nor predicted in full detail in advance, that is, it cannot be construed as a utopia … imagined as something one can simply await in hopes that someday it might arrive” but through active struggle (p.91). This passage seems to sum up the dialectic case against the mechanists, although Stetsenko does not refer to that historical debate.

Let’s follow this line of critique further. At this point in the book, Stetsenko begins to discuss her project in the context of history. She does not draw on critical historical scholarship of Soviet psychology such as Bauer, Joravsky, Valsiner, Veresov, Haenen, Petrovsky, Blunden, Valsiner & Van der Veer, or Van der Veer & Valsiner. She does briefly mention one of Kozulin’s articles to dispute his claim that Leontiev broke with Vygotsky (p.146), but she does not cite either of the books in which he lays out this case: Vygotsky’s Psychology or Psychology in Utopia. Perhaps as a result, the historical exploration of Vygotsky’s ideas is oddly ahistorical. Vygotsky is portrayed as “uniquely” activist and focused on egalitarianism, but the historical conditions that validated and enabled this stance are barely discussed (p.96). The break between Vygotsky and Leontiev is sutured together and dismissed (p.97; 146). At the same time, Vygotsky is sundered from his intellectual forebears: Stetsenko notes the complementary viewpoints of Piaget and Dewey, the “three key frameworks on human development in the 20th century” (p.128) and says that “it is remarkable—and highly ironic—that the common grounds of the theories have been all but ignored” (p.153), without acknowledging that they are similar in part because Vygotsky drew heavily from both Piaget and Dewey’s pragmatist colleague Mead. Similarly, she plays up Vygotsky’s reliance on Darwin without noting that he interpreted Darwin through Engels’s origin story. She argues that Vygotsky “appeared to waver” at times, and argues that the task of stabilizing his views fell to Leontiev (p.147).

That is, Vygotsky is portrayed here as a lone genius who developed a uniquely activist stance. Leontiev is portrayed as taking up this project and developing it further—although she acknowledges that Leontiev and Davydov erroneously accepted objective reality “at least in part due to them working under the pressures of a unidirectional, top-down ideology” (p.183)—a rare nod to the historical contingencies that shape theory. And now Stetsenko calls us to take up this activist stance handed down from Vygotsky. In the remainder of the book, she links the stance to other activist lines of thought and contrasts it to “canonical Marxism” (e.g., p.183).

After the section on the history of Vygotskian thought, Stetsenko links the Vygotskian tradition to Marxism more broadly and to activism. She urges us to interpret Marx dialectically, not mechanically (p.194) and finally addresses mechanism explicitly in Marx, only to explain it away (p.250). She also embraces Bakhtin, especially the aspects of open-endedness and unfinalizability that Bakhtin wrote about in his private notebooks.

In the last chapter, she discusses the implications for education. One implication is to place identity at the forefront (p.339). Doing so provides a contact point with Leontiev’s work: after Stalin’s death, Leontiev published on consciousness and personality. These were safe subjects in the USSR at the time (after being quite unsafe in the mid-1930s). She concludes with an agenda to radicalize activity theory (p.367), a theory that arguably survived in the Soviet Union by being apolitical.

So what did I think of the book? I’ve aired some of the disagreements I have with the author. Perhaps it’s because she has attempted such a broad sweep, but it seems like the author has divided her sources into positive and negative valences, then construed every source of positive valence as supporting TAS. The cultural-historical developments of the theory—and especially the historically developing contradictions and tensions—seem to be minimized or unacknowledged. When such tensions exist in the theory—such as the tension between telos and dialectics in Marx and Engels, or the tension between semiotic mediation and activity in Vygotsky and Leontiev—Stetsenko tends to minimize them or explain them away. When such tensions and limitations exist in competing theories, they are grounds for dismissing those competitors. This approach allows the author to prosecute her case, but at the cost of dramatically simplifying the theory’s development and limiting our understanding of how it came to be—its potential and its limitations.

For all that, I think I have not sufficiently emphasized the value of Stetsenko’s project. Activity theory has strong potential for broader applications, but its traditionally apolitical stance has arguably limited its uptake. In this book, Stetsenko thinks through how an activist activity theory—not an interventionist one, as Engestrom has developed, but an activist one that is oriented to politics and agency—might look. That’s a worthwhile project, and it makes the book worth reading and rereading.

Reading :: The Transformative Mind

Posted by: on Mar 1, 2017 | No Comments

The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education
By Anna Stetsenko

Anna Stetsenko has an impressive biography. As she describes in an autobiographical sketch near the beginning of this thick book, she studied at Moscow University “at a time when it was the hotbed of Vygotsky’s approach” in the mid-70s through the late 80s. There, she interacted and sometimes collaborated with A.R. Luria, both A.N. and A.A. Leontiev, P.Y. Galperin, D.B. Elkonin, V.V. Davydov, and others. After the collapse of the USSR, she worked first in Europe and then in the US (at CUNY, where she is currently) (p.15). Relocating, she said, was an eye-opening experience, allowing her to see new perspectives (p.16). It also led her to see the USSR’s 1991 collapse and the West’s triumphalism with a more critical eye; she sees the 2008 financial collapse as the other shoe dropping (pp.16-17).

Considering this deep well of life experiences, Stetsenko proposes in this book to develop Vygotskian theory toward what she calls the Transformative Activist Stance (TAS), an approach that “builds off from the dialectical premises of Vygotsky’s project and their broader foundations in Marxist philosophy” (p.4), one that attempts to address impasses in Vygotsky’s project and canonical Marxism, emphasizing human subjectivity “as a necessary vehicle of collaborative meaningful practices/activities of people aimed at purposefully transforming the world in view of the sought-after future” (p.5). Stetsenko draws on aligned sociocultural projects, but also works as diverse as feminist theory, Foucault, Bordieu, and Freire (p.5). That is, Stetsenko rereads the work of Vygotsky and activity theorists from the standpoint of activism. How do we apply Vygotsky today, and how can we positively transform our own world (p.10)?

Given Stetsenko’s deep biography and her deep study—conducted in Russian as well as English—I am cautious about critiquing her work. Yet I do have some hesitations about this work, which I’ll discuss more thoroughly below.

The book has five parts. Part I introduces the idea of TAS and the need for an activist theory. Part II reviews Vygotsky’s project, including its development through the cultural-historical school. Part III covers ontology, epistemology, and agency, while Part IV discusses mind. Finally, Part V outlines implications for education.

We can see the resonance between Vygotsky’s project and activism in Part I. From the Vygotskian perspective, “human capabilities and capacities are constituted in and through the process of development—as they are brought into realization in the course of people actively engaging in, contributing to, and transforming collaborative social practices that are culturally mediated, socially contextualized, and contingent on material resources including critical-theoretical tools … of agency” (p.25). This perspective seems like a good fit for activism, in which “development is about participating yet is also, and even more critically, about contributing to transformative communal practices from one or the other side, or position or stance, on their dilemmas and contradictions. … social change and agency are ubiquitous, endemic, and immanent in the world understood as a realm that not only embeds, grounds, and gives rise to human development but is co-created by social collaborative practices embodied in individual and communal ways of being, knowing, and doing” (p.34). The shift to an activist stance entails exchanging a viewpoint of competition and survival for one of collaboration and solidarity (p.36).

Stetsenko believes that this stance is crucial at the current historical moment, which she characterizes as an “ongoing crisis in social, economic, and political landscapes” in which education in particular is characterized by

an enforcement of a crude, narrow model of evidence-based, disinterested, value-neutral science that is devoid of theory and tailored to reductionist views of nature, human development, education, and mind. These models prize biological explanations that put human development in service to natural selection and adaptation; focus on isolated individuals as prime units of analysis; equate mind with the brain; and promote the mantras of neutral evidence, all taken as standards of what is claimed to be the only way to do objective science. (p.42).

She characterizes this work as “supernaturalist orthodoxy” and characterizes the orthodoxy’s view of research thus:

research is supposed to be based on presumably “naked” evidence composed of “raw” facts about “indomitable” nature and “pristine” reality (all supposedly residing in biological processes and phenomena)—as we find them “here and now,” somehow purged of human dimensions and independent from not only society, history and context but even from the more immediately situated processes and practices of knowledge production and research. (pp.42-43)

Unfortunately—and this is my first substantial critique of the book—Stetsenko provides no citations representing the viewpoints she is critiquing. The quotes appear to be scare quotes, and the sole cite for the paragraph is Gould 1988 (substantiating a more specific claim later in the paragraph). Although as a humanist I found myself somewhat receptive to this argument, it’s awfully broad-brush, and Stetsenko makes enough such arguments that I grew cautious of such characterizations. (For instance, on p.316 she does cite the viewpoints she is critiquing: she lumps Hutchins, Clark, and others into a single movement, then claims that those in this movement “still often do not go far enough” because they “leave intact the basic premise of the brain as processing information through computations.” Hutchins does emphatically see the brain as performing computational work, but this processing is not different in kind from other computational work being performed outside the skull—this is the very point of his book, which Stetsenko cites.)

Back to activism. Stetsenko notes that in the adaptionist ethos, sociocultural and critical approaches typically focus on challenging the status quo, but not on fundamentally changing it (p.62). Examples include Foucault, Latour, and Deleuze (p.64). Later, she discusses the activist limits of other sociocultural scholarship, noting that one ramification of many such views is that they imply that “extra-personal forces” (neurological processes shaped by genetics; collective cultural or power processes) “guide and shape human development and learning”—”eschewing the status of human beings in their own lives and communities” (p.79). Missing is

the transformative agency of people, qua social agents of communities and their histories, to shape and essentially create their world, their future, and their own development while relying on the social and cultural resources that they bring into existence and co-create in each and every act of their lives. (p.79)

And here’s my second critique. If you’ve been reading my recent reviews, maybe you are thinking of the same thing I am. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union was also wrestling with two views: a causal, determinist, teleological view of history and human development, and a nondeterminist one that put collective human agency and achievement at the center. Both were rooted in the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The first view, the mechanist or Bukharinite view, meshed well with early pedology: the assumption was that as Russia transitioned from a capitalist to a socialist footing, the new environment would transform the students. Some pedologists even called for a “withering away of the school,” in which schools would become obsolete in the new environment. The second view, the dialectical or Deborinite view, focused on human agency and became more popular in education in the early 1930s—when it became clear that a socialist regime in itself did not cure the problems of education. Vygotsky, who knew his Marx and was deeply influenced by the 1925 publication of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, arguably tended toward the dialectical. The Deborinites won decisive victories in 1931 and 1938 (i.e., Stalin endorsed their views), and pedology was banned in 1936. Hence, for political and historical reasons, activity theory tends to reflect the dialectical stance—if it had not, it would not have survived as a going concern.

On p.79 and elsewhere in the book, Stetsenko recapitulates the basics of the debate between mechanists and dialecticians—although she does not draw the connection explicitly, and I doubt that she sees the parallel. But the cultural-historical school and the activity-theoretical school were historical products, and understanding their history helps us to understand how they are predisposed to understanding human activity in specific ways. When Stetsenko complains that “many contemporary critical and sociocultural approaches” undertheorize “active human persons and activities,” and urges us to understand “the power of human transformative agency … as an individually unique achievement of togetherness” (p.83), she selects a research stance that was formed specifically to focus on that transformative power, and developed within a political milieu that mandated such a view.

Side note: This point made me wonder about something that Engestrom notes in his new introduction to the second edition of Learning by Expanding. Engestrom complained:

there is a risk that activity theory is split into the study of activity systems, organizations, and history, on the one hand, and subjects, actions, and situations, on the other hand. This is exactly the kind of split the founders of activity theory set out to overcome. To bridge and integrate the two directions, serious theoretical and empirical efforts are needed. (p.xvi)

I now wonder if this split interacts with the latent tension between mechanist (contextually oriented, causal) and dialectical (individually oriented, agential) traditions. Now there’s a dissertation topic if someone is looking for one.

Back to Stetsenko. At the end of this discussion, she argues that Vygotsky’s “passionate quest for equality and justice” has been “all but ignored” in the West (p.89, her emphasis). “The project of immediate relevance to Vygotsky and his colleagues consisted of efforts at creating a new system of education for society that was in the process of being created and forged, practically from scratch” (p.89), and like Vygotsky, Stetsenko “commits to matters of equality as the first analytical step” (p.90). She adds that this method is “the very gist of Vygotsky’s project”: an egalitarian society for a future society. “This future society cannot be charted nor predicted in full detail in advance, that is, it cannot be construed as a utopia … imagined as something one can simply await in hopes that someday it might arrive” but through active struggle (p.91). This passage seems to sum up the dialectic case against the mechanists, although Stetsenko does not refer to that historical debate.

Let’s follow this line of critique further. At this point in the book, Stetsenko begins to discuss her project in the context of history. She does not draw on critical historical scholarship of Soviet psychology such as Bauer, Joravsky, Valsiner, Veresov, Haenen, Petrovsky, Blunden, Valsiner & Van der Veer, or Van der Veer & Valsiner. She does briefly mention one of Kozulin’s articles to dispute his claim that Leontiev broke with Vygotsky (p.146), but she does not cite either of the books in which he lays out this case: Vygotsky’s Psychology or Psychology in Utopia. Perhaps as a result, the historical exploration of Vygotsky’s ideas is oddly ahistorical. Vygotsky is portrayed as “uniquely” activist and focused on egalitarianism, but the historical conditions that validated and enabled this stance are barely discussed (p.96). The break between Vygotsky and Leontiev is sutured together and dismissed (p.97; 146). At the same time, Vygotsky is sundered from his intellectual forebears: Stetsenko notes the complementary viewpoints of Piaget and Dewey, the “three key frameworks on human development in the 20th century” (p.128) and says that “it is remarkable—and highly ironic—that the common grounds of the theories have been all but ignored” (p.153), without acknowledging that they are similar in part because Vygotsky drew heavily from both Piaget and Dewey’s pragmatist colleague Mead. Similarly, she plays up Vygotsky’s reliance on Darwin without noting that he interpreted Darwin through Engels’s origin story. She argues that Vygotsky “appeared to waver” at times, and argues that the task of stabilizing his views fell to Leontiev (p.147).

That is, Vygotsky is portrayed here as a lone genius who developed a uniquely activist stance. Leontiev is portrayed as taking up this project and developing it further—although she acknowledges that Leontiev and Davydov erroneously accepted objective reality “at least in part due to them working under the pressures of a unidirectional, top-down ideology” (p.183)—a rare nod to the historical contingencies that shape theory. And now Stetsenko calls us to take up this activist stance handed down from Vygotsky. In the remainder of the book, she links the stance to other activist lines of thought and contrasts it to “canonical Marxism” (e.g., p.183).

After the section on the history of Vygotskian thought, Stetsenko links the Vygotskian tradition to Marxism more broadly and to activism. She urges us to interpret Marx dialectically, not mechanically (p.194) and finally addresses mechanism explicitly in Marx, only to explain it away (p.250). She also embraces Bakhtin, especially the aspects of open-endedness and unfinalizability that Bakhtin wrote about in his private notebooks.

In the last chapter, she discusses the implications for education. One implication is to place identity at the forefront (p.339). Doing so provides a contact point with Leontiev’s work: after Stalin’s death, Leontiev published on consciousness and personality. These were safe subjects in the USSR at the time (after being quite unsafe in the mid-1930s). She concludes with an agenda to radicalize activity theory (p.367), a theory that arguably survived in the Soviet Union by being apolitical.

So what did I think of the book? I’ve aired some of the disagreements I have with the author. Perhaps it’s because she has attempted such a broad sweep, but it seems like the author has divided her sources into positive and negative valences, then construed every source of positive valence as supporting TAS. The cultural-historical developments of the theory—and especially the historically developing contradictions and tensions—seem to be minimized or unacknowledged. When such tensions exist in the theory—such as the tension between telos and dialectics in Marx and Engels, or the tension between semiotic mediation and activity in Vygotsky and Leontiev—Stetsenko tends to minimize them or explain them away. When such tensions and limitations exist in competing theories, they are grounds for dismissing those competitors. This approach allows the author to prosecute her case, but at the cost of dramatically simplifying the theory’s development and limiting our understanding of how it came to be—its potential and its limitations.

For all that, I think I have not sufficiently emphasized the value of Stetsenko’s project. Activity theory has strong potential for broader applications, but its traditionally apolitical stance has arguably limited its uptake. In this book, Stetsenko thinks through how an activist activity theory—not an interventionist one, as Engestrom has developed, but an activist one that is oriented to politics and agency—might look. That’s a worthwhile project, and it makes the book worth reading and rereading.

(Incoming)

Posted by: on Feb 22, 2017 | No Comments

Usually I post book reviews on Wednesdays. But, believe it or not, I have caught up with my books this week. Instead, I’ve been working on an article about … well, you’ll see, but I can tell you that I’ve been heavily using my own reviews for the las…

Reading :: Literature and Revolution

Posted by: on Feb 15, 2017 | No Comments

Literature and Revolution
By Leon Trotsky

(The link goes to Amazon, but you can also find this book at marxists.org, from where I copied and pasted the quotes.)

I confess that I have zero interest in literature. However, Lev Vygotsky had a deep interest in the subject, which was the topic of his dissertation The Psychology of Art (which marxists.org says was written 1917, but defended in 1925). Like Vygotsky, Trotsky was a Jewish intellectual whose fortunes had dramatically improved through the 1917 Revolution, one who was enthralled with literature. So Trotsky’s 1923 book Literature and Revolution—published before Stalin consolidated power, a year before Lenin’s death, and a year before Vygotsky’s invitation to join the Psychological Institute in Moscow—made a deep impact on Vygotsky and was incorporated and quoted in the dissertation, defended just two years later. And what would be safer than quoting the scholarship of one of the leaders of the Revolution?

By 1927, Trotsky had lost his struggle with Stalin and been removed from power. By February 1929, he had been exiled from the Soviet Union. And when Vygotsky’s dissertation was published in the USSR in the mid-1960s, his quote of Trotsky was excised. But Trotsky’s influence is still detectable sub rosa even in Vygotsky’s 1930 essay “The Socialist Alteration of Man” (discussed in an earlier review). Specifically, this influence was Trotsky’s vision of the New Soviet Man, a vision that thrived in the USSR, detached from Trotsky.

The passage that Vygotsky quoted is at the end of this book, but let’s start at the beginning and get the building blocks in place. In this book, Trotsky contemplates the question of revolutionary literature, which he regards as a vital question: yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat must solve elementary problems first (food, clothing, shelter, literacy); but “the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch,” including the Soviet epoch then at hand (p.29). At this point, non-Revolutionary literature was “dying, together with the classes which it served” (p.32). He adds that although “there are decades of struggle ahead of us, in Europe and in America,” the Revolution would win out, and its art with it. Trotsky was an optimist: “This new art is incompatible with pessimism, with skepticism, and with all the other forms of spiritual collapse. It is realistic, active, vitally collectivist, and filled with a limitless creative faith in the Future” (p.33). One can see why Vygotsky, also an optimist, would be drawn to this vision.

Trotsky categorizes all literature as non-Revolutionary (or pre-Revolutionary), transitional, or bourgeois; the art of the Revolution was not yet born at this point (p.61). After all, the Revolution itself was in a transitional phase, currently ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat—which at this point Trotsky had accepted was going to last longer than he had thought in 1917. “When we wish to denounce the all-too-optimistic views about the transition to socialism, we point out that the period of the social revolution, on a world scale, will last not months and not years, but decades—decades, but not centuries, and certainly not thousands of years” (p.154). In addressing whether a proletariat art might arise during this short timeline, he describes the coming new society as a prophet might describe Heaven:

But one may answer: It took thousands of years to create the slave-owning art and only hundreds of years for the bourgeois art. Why, then, could not proletarian art be created in tens of years? The technical bases of life are not at all the same at present and therefore the tempo is also different. This objection, which at first sight seems convincing, in reality misses the crux of the question. Undoubtedly, in the development of the new society, the time will come when economics, cultural life and art will receive the greatest impulse forward. At the present time we can only create fancies about their tempo. In a society which will have thrown off the pinching and stultifying worry about one’s daily bread, in which community restaurants will prepare good, wholesome and tasteful food for all to choose, in which communal laundries will wash clean everyone’s good linen, in which children, all the children, will be well fed and strong and gay, and in which they will absorb the fundamental elements of science and art as they absorb albumen and air and the warmth of the sun, in a society in which electricity and the radio will not be the crafts they are today, but will come from inexhaustible sources of super-power at the call of a central button, in which there will be no “useless mouths”, in which the liberated egotism of man – a mighty force! – will be directed wholly towards the understanding, the transformation and the betterment of the universe – in such a society the dynamic development of culture will be incomparable with anything that went on in the past. But all this will come only after a climb, prolonged and difficult, which is still ahead of us. And we are speaking only about the period of the climb. (p.157)

 And this new art will have certain characteristics, revived from the old forms:

One cannot tell whether revolutionary art will succeed in producing “high” revolutionary tragedy. But Socialist art will revive tragedy. Without God, of course. The new art will be atheist. It will also revive comedy, because the new man of the future will want to laugh. It will give new life to the novel. It will grant all rights to lyrics, because the new man will love in a better and stronger way than did the old people, and he will think about the problems of birth and death. The new art will revive all the old forms, which arose in the course of the development of the creative spirit. The disintegration and decline of these forms are not absolute, that is, they do not mean that these forms are absolutely incompatible with the spirit of the new age. All that is necessary is for the poet of the new epoch to re-think in a new way the thoughts of mankind, and to re-feel its feelings. (p.199)

 And “the shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous” (p.206).

And here we get to the quote that Vygotsky inserted into The Psychology of Art. I’ve included a page and a half’s worth so that you can see what Trotsky was driving at, but I’ve also emphasized what I think are the most strikingly Vygotskian parts of the quote:

More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub-soil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death. 

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman

It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise. (pp.206-207, my emphasis)

A few things here. First, if you’ve wondered why Vygotsky transitioned from his first love (literature) to psychology, perhaps this passage will provide insight: “Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction?” As Marx says in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” I can imagine this vision being tremendously compelling for a young idealist Vygostky, and Trotsky’s statement would have reinforced this decision (although not sparked it).

Second, the theme of self-mastery is strong throughout; this theme, under the heading of mediation, shows up in Vygotsky’s “instrumental” period in the 1920s. Specifically, this mediational account mingles with Vygotsky’s reading of Engels’ origin story of man in the 1930 book he wrote with Luria. (It also accords with Trotsky’s declaration, following Marx, that “in the beginning was the deed” (p.153).

Third, Vygotsky’s essay “The Soviet Alteration of Man” reads as a straightforward elaboration of this block quote. In particular, Trotsky’s closing declaration that “The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx” seems to be echoed in Vygotsky’s closing declaration that “one could say that new forms of labour will create the new man and that this new man will resemble the old kind of man, ‘the old Adam’, in name only, in the same way as, according to Spinoza’s great statement, a dog, the barking animal, resembles the heavenly constellation Dog.”

So, although I continue not to be interested in the study of literature, this literary book helped me to better understand the works of Vygotsky. If you’re interested in that goal as well, check it out.