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, 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 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.

(Fall graduate course: Sociocultural Approaches to Technology: North American Genre Theory)

Posted by: on Feb 15, 2017 | No Comments

E388M: Sociocultural Approaches to Technology: North American Genre TheoryHere’s the description for my fall graduate course, which is part of a series of seminars I’ve been presenting on sociocultural approaches to technology. Previous entries in this…

Reading :: Developmental Psychology in the Soviet Union

Posted by: on Feb 8, 2017 | No Comments

Developmental Psychology in the Soviet Union
By Jaan Valsiner

Before teaming up with Van der Veer to produce three influential books on the Soviet Union’s cultural-historical school of psychology, Jaan Valsiner wrote this impressive 1988 book about Soviet developmental psychology. Just three years before the USSR’s collapse, Valsiner aims to address the difficulties that Soviet and Western psychologists had in understanding each other. “In this respect, the present treatise is a narrative in the domain of sociology of social anthropology of a social science. Its goal is to analyze the usually hidden ties between the cultural organization of society and the thinking of psychologists, as well as an overview of developmental psychology in the USSR” (p.3). Interestingly, Valsiner explicitly rejects a Kuhnian reading because Kuhn’s “paradigms” assume that sciences are framed separately from other sectors—something that was true in the West, but not in the USSR (p.11).

Valsiner begins with the historical context, specifically noting the 300+ years of pre-Soviet development of Russian culture, including both (a) the mingling of native Russian and European traditions and (b) the expansion of the Russian empire, which involved annexing new territories and incorporating non-Russians of various languages and cultures. “That history of annexation is the basis for the cross-culturally heterogeneous contemporary psychology in the USSR,” he adds (p.20). Another contributor was Catherine the Great’s demand for undivided loyalty, which provided the basis for Soviet thinking about the individual’s relationship to society (p.29).

Valsiner then examines trends in psychology, specifically Bogdanov. Two features of his thinking are especially salient: (1) “the emphasis on external (environmental) determination of the internal changes of the system,” which “follows the lines of both evolutionist and Marxist thought”; (2) his view that external history is not absolute but interacts with the internal relations of a system (p.36). These features made Bodganov’s “environmentalism” similar to what would later be called interactionist psychology (p.37). Further, Bogdanov, like the Marxists, saw a system as developing through a series of crises involving the emergence of a new form (p.37).

Valsiner also reviews Bekhterev, whose contributions were broad. Specifically, “Bekhterev was the first Russian behavioural scientist who explicitly formulated the beginnings of an activity-theoretic perspective that later became the core of Soviet developmental psychology in different versions (Vygotsky, Leontiev, Zaporozhets, Basov, Ananiev and others” (p.53). Interestingly, Bekhterev used (and overextended) the concept of “energy” in his work, something that he coincidentally shared with Engels’ dialectical view of nature; this happy coincidence helped Bekhterev to relate his energistic reflexology to Marxism once Engels’ Dialectics of Nature was published in 1925.

The mid 1920s was an active time in Soviet psychology. As noted above, Dialectics of Nature certainly made an impact in 1925, not just in terms of reflexology but also in terms of the emerging cultural-historical school. But in addition, the educational system was in turmoil post-Revolution, trying out new (and often ill-conceived experiments) (cf. Bauer). In 1927, the Commisariat of Education imposed compulsory teaching plans and timetable, including a social studies program meant to consistently inculcate Soviet ideology—and recentered the teacher in the classroom (p.71). But experiments persisted until they were put to a stop with the 1936 Decree on Paedology . As Valsiner notes,

The variety of experiments in the Soviet educational system during the 1920s was quite understandable, as the whole society was overwhelmed with efforts to rebuild itself along ‘new’ lines. However, as is usually the case, the ‘new’ often constituted a direct refusal to make use of anything ‘old’. At other times, some ‘old’ forms of organizing social life could emphatically be relabelled ‘new’. Last (but not least), the new Soviet society was led by the Communist Party whose explicit aim was to preserve political power, and that could be easily challenged under the conditions of a highly heterogeneous society. (p.71)

The latter point led to a fortress mentality in which “The ghost of the ‘bourgeoisie'” could be said to underlie any non-Soviet position; the ingroup felt under siege and rejected the ideas of the outgroup (p.73). Practically speaking, this mentality led to partiinost’, or partisanship/party nature, as the basis for Soviet science (p.74). Although partiinost’ can be attributed to Lenin, Valsiner notes that it can be traced back to Catherine II’s introduction of “good citizenship” in the 18th century (p.74). Its purpose, Valsiner says, is to homogenize different world views of group members by establishing one dominant perspective. “Thus, ‘partiinost” constitutes an enthusiastic acceptance of the perspective that the party in power provides, by people who may originally have had different viewpoints” (p.75)

(A few things here. One, partiinost’ can be rationalized with Engelsian dialectics, in which a single dialectical synthesis emerges from the contact of two antecedents. Two, partiinost’ is consistent with Leontiev’s view of methodology; from the Soviet view, a single methodology (and perspective) is vastly preferable to the cacophony of eclectic methodologies and perspectives embraced by the West. Three, partiinost’ is opposed to the eclecticism for which Chelpanov was criticized and which led to his replacement by Kornilov (cf. p.81). Four, partiinost’ is obviously incompatible with Bakhtinian dialogism.)

Partiinost’ helps to explain the circular firing squad that Soviet psychology formed in the 1920s. If a group is composed of individuals who each have a perspective, but only one can be dominant, and that perspective will be determined by the party and taken to be truth, but the dominant perspective is always potentially reversible (Soviets referred to the law of dialectical negation here)—then competition is incentivized: ruthless competition to gain and hold the partiinost’. “The status of the ultimately true scientific metatheory is by definition based on the dialectical materialism of all sciences, and on historical materialism in all social sciences. From this axiomatic perspective, every possible theory or empirical investigation is evaluated in terms of its ‘true’ or ‘erring’ nature” (p.76).

Valsiner argues that “it is in the context of efforts towards socializing people in the belief in internalized acceptance of partiinost’ that the changes in Soviet society can be understood” (p.100). Specifically, the Party could “change its course without the loss of any credibility in the eyes of believers who had internalized the concept” (p.100). The most important thing was active loyalty to the Party—not whether the Party’s position was adequately related to reality (p.100). “A person whose loyalty to a certain belief system is strongly internalized does not need external guidelines of action, his (or her) own thinking leads to acting in the socialized way” (p.101; cf. Fitzgerald on the “permanent ambiguity” under Stalin). Valsiner proffers the example of Lysenko, noting that Lysenko’s views about the environmental modification of the species were shared by Soviet child psychologists (pp.102-103; cf. Bauer on the early focus on environment in Soviet pedology and Vygotsky’s “The Socialist Alteration of Man“). Granted,

Vygotsky did not try to advance this developmental idea to its ultimate conclusion, always reminding himself and his listeners (readers) of the limited nature of that modifiability. However, some of his disciples (such as A.N. Leont’ev) had no difficulty in agreeing with Lysenko’s basic ideas in developmental psychology at the height of Lysenkoism at the end of the 1940s (see Bauer, 1949). The evangelistic social ethos of the utopian ‘new society’ inhabited by ‘new man’ whose active input on the environment is always progressive when carried out under the wise leadership of the Party, made it only too natural for both Lysenkoites and Soviet psychologists to speculate on the topic of modifiability of development in nature and psychology. (pp.103-104)

Valsiner points out that Lysenko’s ideas were tested on broad scale, with poor results. In contrast, Soviet psychologists’ parallel ideas were not tested at a broad scale. (p.104)

At the end of World War II, the USSR was triumphant, yet the allies’ help—and increased contact with non-Soviets, both allies and enemies—threatened a loss of the Soviet fortress mentality and thus threatened the social system. The Cold War made it possible to reinstate this fortress mentality, and the Soviets began a witch hunt of “cosmopolitan” and “foreign” influences. Rubinshtein became a target: “Rubinshtein was found ‘guilty’ of studying human consciousness as that of an undefined person, rather than that of the ‘Soviet new man’. His intellectual indebtedness to Western psychologists was ‘unmasked'”(p.108). Other consciousness-oriented psychologists were also criticized, including Leontiev (pp.108-109), setting the stage for neo-Pavlovian dominance of psychology a few years later (p.109).

Looking back at the end of this chapter (Ch.3), Valsiner concludes that “By trying to build the ‘new man’ in the USSR [psychologists] have actually rebuilt their way of thinking”—that is, they had internalized the idea of developing the New Man, and that had shaped Soviet psychology along developmental lines (p.116).

Chapter 4 is about Vygotsky. I’ve discussed Vygotsky extensively on this blog, so I’ll just note some things here. First, Valsiner argues that “even when relying on Russian thinkers of the past, Vygotsky was in fact advancing ideas that had originated internationally, rather than in the isolation of an independent ‘Russian genius'” (p.123). Second, Vygotsky made “few, but selective and highly adequate references to different aspects of Marxist philosophy,” specifically Engels’ and Marx’s claims about labor and active human transformation of nature. “Vygotsky’s acceptance of Marxist philosophy was not that of an ardent follower. Instead, he was an active creator of Marxist psychology” and didn’t use Marxist slogans demagogically (p.125).

Confronted with non-developmental methods, Valsiner says, Vygotsky had to construct his own method (p.128). This method had three characteristics:

  • distinguished between analysis of a thing and analysis of a process
  • overcame the separation of description and explanation by emphasizing that historical analysis affords the potential to explain psychological processes
  • emphasized the presence of “fossilized” behavior in psychological observations (pp.130-132)
Skipping a bit: Valsiner notes that Vygotsky’s work underwent three waves of translations: 1920-1939; 1961-1981; and 1984-on (p.154). All the basic aspects of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical approach were available in English by 1939 (p.155), but the uptake was thin. By the second wave of translations, however, cognitive interests had been reestablished in Western psychology, and Vygotsky’s works gained interest under that interpretation. “Thanks to the efforts of Michael Cole and his colleagues to publicize Vygotsky’s name among American psychologists, a potpourri of Vygotsky’s ideas, collected together from different sources and linked in ways judged to fit the ‘recipient’ culture better than the original … appeared in English” (p.155; Valsiner is referring to Mind in Society).  
Valsiner presents a table showing citations to Vygotsky in the West, demonstrating that most of the citations are to the second-wave translations. “this table … illustrates the canalized nature of references to Vygotsky in English-language publications over the period covered” (p.160). In fact, the vast majority of the cites are to Thought and Language (1962 edition) and Mind in Society (p.161), both of which were altered to fit the recipient culture!
The problem that Valsiner describes here persists even today. Just this morning, I saw this thread on Twitter about a supposed Vygotsky quote. Literally as I was about to write the above two paragraphs, @Ilyenkov_et_alia verified that the quote doesn’t even show up in its supposed source! Perhaps it’s a paraphrase of a paraphrase—the quote shows up in several quote repositories, but doesn’t seem to be in Vygotsky’s actual work at all. As Valsiner implies, Vygotsky is too often used in the West to validate established thought rather than being understood as its own internally coherent system. 
Moving on. Later in the book, Valsiner discusses issues of cognitive development and activity theory. Valsiner notes that activity theory emerged from the Kharkov school, linking Vygotsky’s cultural-historical school with contemporary psychology (p.216). For Leontiev, activities are “forms of human relationships with the object-world, distinguished and guided by their motives” (p.217). Importantly, “there are two distinctions between Leontiev’s view and Vygotsky’s. First, the development of meaning and sense in ontogeny is subsumed under the primacy of activity. Secondly, Leontiev explicitly bases his concept of ‘personal sense’ on Marx’s writings, rather than those of Vygotsky (who in his turn borrowed it from Paulhan” (p.218). Later, Valsiner notes that activity theory’s approach to interaction “is by far less directly related to empirical investigation” than work based on Bekhterev; “If [activity theory] addresses empirical issues, these are studied mostly by observational and rarely by experimental means, and usually by investigators for whom the action-theoretic approach is in addition to their personal or humanitarian interest in practical issues concerning children” (p.241). 
Speaking of children: A bit later in the book, Valsiner recounts some developmental research on children in the 1920s, noting that this research describes how Soviet children were socialized for latent, “conditional animosity” in which the USSR was considered the in-group and capitalist countries were considered the out-group (p.264). Another study investigated indoctrination in children, finding that the peer group develops the prescribed worldview as a result of active interaction with the environment (p.266). These studies were seen by their authors as positive, not sinister—understandable, given the uncritical acceptance of partiinost’ and the program to develop the New Soviet Man. 
Valsiner gives us a little more detail on the two Central Asian expeditions that Luria led, including Koffka’s participation in the second one (1932). Unfortunately for Luria, this expedition happened in the early 1930s, just as the Soviets were redefining the problem of non-Russian cultures within the USSR—”all cultures of the USSR were now becoming homogeneous as the ‘Soviet people'” (p.298). “In such a context of social meanings, paedological and psychological research on non-Russian cultures in the USSR became at best irrelevant, and at worst contrary to the Soviet social-political goals of the 1930s. Thus, comparative-cultural research issues vanished from Soviet psychology for about forty years” (p.298). Eventually, in 1974, Luria took the report of the trip out of a drawer and published it, inspiring one of his students, Peeter Tulviste, to replicate and extend this research (p.299-303). Tulviste’s work “extends the largely linear view of cognitive development, held by Luria and Vygotsky in the 1930s, to a multi-linear one” (p.302). 
There’s more to the book, but let’s leave it there. As with Valsiner’s other work, this one is extremely valuable for understanding the development of psychology in the Soviet Union. If you’re interested in that general topic, or the more specific topic of activity theory, I highly recommend it.

Reading :: Studies in Expansive Learning

Posted by: on Feb 1, 2017 | No Comments

Studies in Expansive Learning: Learning What Is Not Yet There
By Yrjo Engestrom

This 2016 book is based on Engestrom’s work since 2007—as he says in the preface, all chapters except Chapter 1 are based on articles that he authored or coauthored 2007-2013. (Chapter 1 was written specifically for this book.) Collectively, these treat the theory of expansive learning first proposed in his 1987 Learning by Expanding (recently republished by Cambridge).

In Chapter 1, “Introduction: Learning Sciences at the Threshold of Expansion,” Engestrom sets the stage for the rest of the book. Specifically, he situates the book in relationship to the learning sciences, a notion that he dates to the 1991 founding of the Journal of Learning Sciences by US cognitive scientists (p.3). Although the learning sciences should address learning in all contexts, Engestrom notes, in actuality they largely ignored learning outside of school (p.4). Applying an activity analysis to the learning sciences themselves, Engestrom argues that the field encountered “recurring dilemmas”—and “When an activity system is primarily riddled by persistent dilemmas rather than critical conflicts and double binds, it implies that the developmental cycle of the activity system is at the stage of a primary contradiction. A primary contradiction appears as something problematic and uncomfortable but not yet as a crisis that unavoidably demands transformative action and radical redesign” (p.5). And “the primary contradiction of any modern activity system is seen as a specific variation of the general primary contradiction of the socioeconomic formation of capitalism, namely the contradiction between the use value and the exchange value of commodities” (p.6). In this case, the primary contradiction manifests in the Rules component: academic researchers must fulfill exchange value (external success markers such as publications, grants, tenure), but the rules of the zone of proximal development point to use value (“Take risks to change the world—in other words, keep your eyes on the needs of people when you conduct research”) (p.6).

Engestrom moves on to secondary contradictions in the learning sciences, noting their inability to address the ongoing commercialization of education (p.6); the relative absence of runaway objects, which can be “powerfully emancipatory” (p.7); and “the weak recognition in the learning sciences of social movements as sites and subjects of learning” (p.7). (Note: Engestrom sees objects as phenomena, not as analytical anchors for an analysis.)

“If communities of learning sciences are to cope with these types of mismatches and forces,” Engestrom continues, “they need to step out of their comfort zone” (p.7). He recommends expansive learning, which is indicated by “the expansion of the object of the activity system involved in the learning effort” (p.8). This expansion involves three dimensions: the socio-spatial, the temporal, and the political-ethical (p.8).

Engestrom proffers his theory of expansive learning, then forecasts the rest of the book.

In Chapter 2, “Whatever Happened to Process Theories of Learning?”, Engestrom notes that in the social sciences, processes are often reified and attributed with causal powers (p.12). Recently, “process theories have been replaced by approaches and theories that try to capture the essence of learning through the lenses of the learning situation (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991), the learning environment (e.g., Jonassen & Land, 2000), and the learning dialogue (e.g., Mercer & Littleton, 2007)” (p.13). Engestrom identifies the requirements for a process theory of learning:

First of all, it describes a sequence of actions or events that is assumed to have some generality. Second, it presents a general rationale or principle that explains why the actions or events follow one another in a certain order. Third, it presents a causative mechanism that generates the transitions from one action or event to the next one. (p.13)

Fourth, although they “are always to some extent prescriptive” (p.13), a process theory “must denounce universalism and specify just what type of learning it aims at describing, explaining and promoting—and on what historical and cultural grounds” (p.14). Fifth, instruction and learning must be understood as “dialectically intertwined,” and thus the intended and actual processes must be contrasted (p.15).

CHAT uses process theories of learning (p.23), including Davydov’s theory of learning activity and Engestrom’s theory of expansive learning. Engestrom compares these in a table (p.33).

In Chapter 3, “Studies of Expansive Learning: Foundations, Findings, and Future Challenges,” Engestrom considers how expansive learning has been applied. In contrast to learning theories based on metaphors of acquisition and participation, his is based on the metaphor (obviously) of expansion (p.37). Expansive learning also has two factors that make it current: “the emergence and escalation of social production or peer production” and “the emergence and increasing presence of global threats and risks, or ‘runaway objects’ such as global warming and pandemics (p.40). Expansive learning is founded on the “theoretically consequential distinction between action and activity. Expansive learning is movement from action to activity” (p.40).

As an aside, Engestrom nicely sums up a distinction with which I have been recently working: in an activity system,

the object is both resistant raw material and the future-oriented purpose of an activity. The object is the true carrier of the motive of the activity. Thus, in expansive learning activity, motives and motivation are not sought primarily inside individual subjects—they are the object to be transformed and expanded. (p.41)

A little later in the chapter, Engestrom connects expansive learning with several intellectual currents, three of which I’ll highlight: (1) Il’enkov’s “dialectical method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete” (p.42), Bateson’s Learning III (pp.43-44), and Bakhtin’s multi-voicedness/heteroglossia (p.44). He concludes that “expansive learning is an inherently multi-voiced process of debate, negotiation and orchestration” (p.44).

In an activity system, he adds, “contradictions are the necessary but not sufficient engine of expansive learning in an activity system” (p.46).

Skipping forward in this long chapter, let’s just mine a few quotes. In his discussion of the researcher’s role in an expansive learning study, Engestrom says that “In linear interventions the researcher aims at control of all the variables. In formative interventions, the researcher aims at provoking and sustaining an expansive transformation process led and owned by the practitioners” (p.64). This description of the researcher’s role closely matches that of participatory design; recall that at the same time Engestrom was formulating his theory of expansive learning in the mid-1980s, Bodker was separately applying Leontiev’s activity theory to participatory design projects. Both Bodker and Engestrom departed from Leontiev’s investigatory methods, but in the same direction—toward what is here called “formative intervention.”

Engestrom also catalogues critiques of expansive learning from three directions: within CHAT; near CHAT; and the Marxist dialectical tradition (p.66). Within CHAT, Engestrom notes Lompscher’s and Ruckreim’s criticism that activity theory is “captive to the historically passing medium of print and writing” (p.66); he argues, however, that their argument “ignores the internal contradictions of objects in capitalism” (p.67). Within the broader Marxist tradition, he acknowledges Avis’ point that expansive learning studies tend to marginalize political agendas (p.71); yes, he agrees, transformations often do not require large-scale confrontation, but they are not necessarily “conservative practice” either. He points to his ongoing discussion of the essential contradiction between use-value and exchange-value in capitalism (p.72). Contra Avis, he adds, those who study expansive learning have allied with radical social movements; his examples include organic farmers; open source software; and local food production in Japan (p.74). (None of these seems particularly radical to me.)

Under the heading of “future challenges,” Engestrom notes that “expansive learning is a process of concept formation” and “complex, consequential concepts are inherently polyvalent, debated, incomplete and often ‘loose’,” with partial versions being produced by different stakeholders (p.74; Leontiev would likely disagree, a fact that implies how far CHAT has moved from second-generation activity theory). “Concepts evolve through cycles of stabilization and destabilization,” meaning that “complex, consequential concepts have expansive potential” (p.75).

Finally, echoing a word of caution that Engestrom has given elsewhere, he adds that the theory of expansive learning analyzes both “outward” (in “fields or networks of interconnected activity systems”) and “inward” (with “issues of subjectivity, experiencing, personal sense, embodiment, identity and moral commitment”) (p.77). “Indeed, there is a risk that the theory is split into the study of collective activity systems, organizations and history on the one hand and subjects, actions and situations on the other hand” (p.77).

In Part II of the book, Engestrom presents several studies. Chapter 4, “Enriching the theory of expansive learning: Lessons from journeys toward co-configuration” explores the notion of co-configuration:

an emerging historically new type of work that relies on (1) adaptive “customer-intelligent” product-service combinations, (2) continuous relationships of mutual exchange between customers, producers and the product-service combinations, (3) ongoing configuration and customization of the product-service combination over lengthy periods of time, (4) active customer involvement and input into the configuration, (5) multiple collaborating producers that need to operate in networks within or between organizations and (6) mutual learning from interactions between the parties involved in the configuration actions. (p.81)

Co-configuration is characterized as transformative learning; horizontal and dialogical learning; and subterranean learning (the latter connected to mycorrhizae) (p.82). Engestrom proffers cases: a bank, a health center, and a high-tech company. In his discussion, he mentions Bodker and Andersen’s 2005 paper on multi-mediation, which he considers important but “somewhat opaque” (p.94). In response, he proffers a set of epistemic levels of mediational artifacts, answering these questions:

  • Where to?
  • Why?
  • How, in which order?
  • In which location?
  • Who, what, when?
  • What? (p.95)
In the cases, Engestrom notes that the expansive learning processes “took the shape of constructing and using new mediational concepts and tools in multi-layered constellations or instrumentalities” (p.96). 
In Chapter 5, “From learning environments and implementation to activity systems and expansive learning,” Engestrom proffers the activity system as an alternate way to understand learning environments. He draws from Cole to discuss context as threads of interaction, intertwined—the view of CHAT (p.107). CHAT’s crucial insight inherited from Vygotsky, he says, is the dialectic between object and mediating artifact (p.107). After discussing a case study of a middle school, he concludes, “an activity system is an open system and its lateral interplay with other activity systems … makes possible surprising empowerments and surges of agency” (p.116).
In Chapter 6, “Process enhancement versus community building: Transcending the dichotomy through expansive learning,” Engestrom notes that “there is a deep gap and mutual hostility between two important rhetorics of transformation in organizations and activity systems”: between “process efficiency rhetoric” and “community building rhetoric” (p.117). He cites Adler and Heckscher’s analysis as a “rare attempt to overcome the opposition” between the two, but thinks they underestimate the epistemological divide between them (p.121). Activity theory is offered as a resource for overcoming the divide: “In today’s world, communities are increasingly beginning to take the shape of weakly bounded and mycorrhizae-like formations which rely on stigmergy, negotiation and peer review as coordinating mechanisms” (p.123), while “the object holds the community together and gives it long-term purpose” (p.123). He illustrates with the case of a medical team.
Let’s skip to Chapter 9, “Wildfire activities: New patterns of mobility and learning.” Here, Engestrom “argues for a historical perspective on mobility and learning,” specifically in “social production or peer production,” in which “mobility takes the shape of expansive swarming and multidirectional pulsation, with emphasis on sideways transitions and boundary-crossing” (p.193). Examples include birding, skateboarding, and disaster relief. Such “wildfire activities” offer few awards; take excessive time and energy; and involve high risk. Yet they “renew themselves without much deliberate and centrally organized effort” (p.197). They are discontinuous, dispersed, distributed-yet-coordinated, quickly adopted, open, and use-oriented (p.197). Engestrom characterizes them as “virtuous swarming” (p.197).  
Engestrom connects these wildfire activities with mycorrhizae. (Yes, this suggests a wildly mixed metaphor, but he is keeping consistent with the terms he established previously in separate articles.) And he links both wildfire activities and mycorrhizae with Adler and Heckscher’s discussion of Gemeinschaft (see also Tonnies) (p.198). Learning in wildfire activities, he concludes, involves:
  1. Learning by swarming—a concept that involves rethinking the ZPD.
  2. Learning by building mycorrhizae communities.
  3. Constructing concepts that stabilize cognitive trails.
  4. Experiencing high-stakes involvement.
  5. Learning by combining improvisational adaptation and long-term design
  6. Learning by holiptic monitoring. (pp.206-207)
I’ve covered a lot of ideas here, and haven’t even touched some of them (such as the notion of an argumentative grammar in Ch.10). Suffice it to say that Engestrom covers a lot of concepts, drawing from many different literatures, but connecting these back to the fundamental precepts laid out in his 1987 theorization of expansive learning. If you’re interested in activity theory, expansive learning, or just the question of how we can understand learning in 21st-century workplaces, certainly pick this book up.

Reading :: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Posted by: on Feb 1, 2017 | No Comments

The Fourth Industrial Revolution
By Klaus Schwab

A couple of colleagues recommended this book to me in December, so I picked it up and read—really, skimmed—it a few nights ago. It’s a fast read that covers ground with which you’ll be familiar if you’ve read my recent book All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks.

Essentially, the author—who is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum—argues that “technology and digitization will revolutionize everything, making the overused and often ill-used adage ‘this time is different’ apt. Simply put, major technological innovations are on the brink of fueling momentous change throughout the world—inevitably so” (p.9). Specifically, he identifies technological megatrends that “leverage the pervasive power of digitization and information technology: physical, digital, and biological (p.14). Each of these is expected to hit a number of tipping points by 2025, such as wearable clothes, unlimited free storage, and a trillion sensors connected to the Internet (pp.25-26).

The author explores anticipated impacts of these megatrends for the economy, business, the international order, society, and the individual (Ch.3).

However, the path that this book takes seems well-worn. If you’ve read much on technology trends in the past two decades, there aren’t many surprises here. And in covering such a large sweep, the book doesn’t manage to drill down deeply in any of its many topics.

If you’re looking for a broad overview of near-term trends and potential changes, you might find this book to be useful—in February 2017. By February 2018, I doubt it will seem fresh.