Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Reading :: The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital

Originally posted: Wed, 10 Aug 2005 08:28:47

The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx's Capital

by E.V. Ilyenkov

As an activity theorist, I've become convinced that AT needs to continue developing along the lines of the "third generation" work that Yrjo Engestrom has been advocating. I'm familiar with many of the sources on which Engestrom draws, especially M.M. Bakhtin, but I had not read any Ilyenkov until recently. And the more that I read of Engestrom, the more I became convinced that I had to absorb Ilyenkov in order to better understand contradictions and dialectics.

Dialectics, I hasten to add, is a weak spot of mine. In my graduate education we discussed dialectics only in passing and never read any of the source material in class. And technical communication literature typically doesn't draw much on dialectics except in passing. In fact, most of what I knew about dialectics came from Bakhtin's implicit, under-the-table comparison of it with dialogics. So, incredible as it sounds, my understanding of dialectics -- the core of activity theory -- has been learned inductively by reading endless AT studies. Maybe that's okay, since as far as I can tell, many North American activity theorists haven't studied dialectics either. But it's become apparent that I can't really progress in understanding AT theoretically or methodologically until I understand dialectics as it was understood in the Soviet milieu, the milieu in which activity theory developed. So I began reading up on dialectics in earnest last year, working up to the source materials.

The most important of these source materials, of course, is Marx's Capital. I've begun this work, but have paused to read Ilyenkov's work in hopes that it would summarize and illuminate Marx's discussion. At this point I'm not sure how well it succeeds on that count, but it does seem to summarize and illuminate the Soviet understanding of dialectics in the late 1970s -- which, for my present project, is actually more valuable. Furthermore, Ilyenkov either summarizes or extends (I'm not sure which yet) the implications of Marx's work for understanding development, objects, and contradictions.

In my recent review of Ilyenkov's Dialectical Logic, I mentioned that it seemed to be very much like the other Soviet work I'd read from that era: triumphalist, scornful of non-Marxist and non-dialectic work, and unstinting for its praise of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. There are actually some real differences among these thinkers, but those differences tended to be suppressed rather than explored in the Soviet milieu, and Dialectics is no exception. As I've noted elsewhere, this tendency to consecrate Marxist writers tended to cover up the fact that Engels radically expanded the scope of dialectics, making it a theory of everything: when hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, when two animals produce a hybrid, when potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, and when a culture adjusts to new tools, these are all examples of dialectic. Dialectic becomes a -- I should say the -- natural law. As Haraway and Serres both note in their idiosyncratic ways, the practical effect is that the logic of dialectic becomes naturalized and imposed on nature.

The results are quite limiting. As Ilyenkov describes it, dialectics is unrelentingly oriented toward development: from the abstract to the concrete, from the simple to the complex, from folk knowledge to scientific knowledge, from feudalism to socialism. That is, it's teleological -- so much so that if intelligent life were to be wiped from the Earth, we can be certain that it would arise again (in Dialectical Logic p.55)! For Ilyenkov, time's arrow points one way, and that way leads not just from the past to the future but also from the less evolved to the more evolved. Given that fervent belief, it's not really that surprising that the Soviets wrote so triumphantly: they believed that the iron law of nature dictated that "imperialism" would globally give way to communism (p.134).

(A set of inerrant texts that have to be reconciled by hook or by crook; a teleological narrative of progress; a natural law dictating the rise of intelligent life. Hmm, what does that sound like?)

As a totalizing theory of everything, dialectics seems severely compromised and is vulnerable to the many criticisms leveled by Haraway, Serres, Deleuze & Guattari, and others. But as a theory of development, it's on firmer ground (despite its teleological tendencies). And this is where Ilyenkov really starts to pull his weight. Ilyenkov contributes several things: an account of the "ascent from the abstract to the concrete"; a discussion of the "spiral-like theory of development" on which Engestrom has based his Developmental Work Research approach; and a thorough discussion of contradictions as engines of change.

The "ascent from the abstract to the concrete" refers to the movement from the abstract -- "any one-sided, incomplete, lopsided reflection of the object in consciousness" (p.36), a "particular definition" (p.58) or characteristic -- to the concrete, "a logical combination (synthesis) of particular definitions into an aggregate overall theoretical picture of reality, as movement of thought from the particular to the general" (p.58). Out of many examples -- Ilyenkov tends to go over the same ground many times, perhaps having something to do with the spiral theory of development -- one sticks out. Like Engestrom, Ilyenkov draws on the example of Carnot from Engels' Dialectics of Nature. He introduces Engels' quote in this way:

In actual fact, mankind has always obtained universal, 'infinite' generalisations and conclusions, not only in philosophy but in any area of knowledge as well, through analysis of at least one typical case rather than through abstraction of those identical features that all possible cases have in common. (p.170)

So Carnot's discovery of this law of thermodynamics, which is the abstraction developed through his analysis of a steam engine, led to the concrete applications in 10,000 steam engines. Simple, abstract, common characteristics inevitably lead to complex, concrete, unique, particular syntheses of these characteristics. The abstract and the concrete have a dialectical unity (p.105) in that they are different aspects of the same reality.

Let's get to the "spiral character of development," which is used so expertly in Engestrom's Developmental Work Research approach and his discussions of learning by expanding. Ilyenkov argues that

This dialectics of all real development, in which the universal necessary condition of the emergence of an object becomes its own universal and necessary consequence, this dialectical inversion in which the condition becomes the conditioned, the cause becomes the effect, the universal becomes the particular, is a characteristic feature of internal interaction through which actual development assumes the form of a circle, or, to be more precise, of a spiral which extends the scope of its motion all the time, with each new turn.

At the same time there is a kind of 'locking in itself' here which transforms an aggregate of individual phenomena into a relatively closed system, a concrete integral organism historically developing according to its immanent laws. (pp.115-116)

This spiral is not circular, with an effect becoming its own cause, because dialectics regards cause and effects as manifestations of "a system of mutually conditioning aspects, as a historically emerging and developing concreteness" (p.117).

Now let's get to the final and most important contribution: the discussion of internal contradictions in objects. Ilyenkov argues that in the dialectical-matrialist conception, a single object (in the AT sense) must be traced through "different stages and phases of its maturity" (p.205) in order to highlight "the abstract outlines of its inner structure" that "remain the same throughout its historical development" (p.206). If phenomena or categories disappear during the development of the object, "they are not attributive, internally necessary forms of being of the object" (p.206). If we interpret this as a methodological principle for identifying objects rather than a law of development, it makes quite a bit of sense -- and helps to address Steve Witte's criticism that it's impossible in principle to identify an activity.

Unlike metaphysics, which interprets contradictions as imperfections in reasoning, dialectics sees contradictions "as the necessary logical form of the development of thought, of the transition from ignorance to knowledge, from an abstract reflection of the object in thought to the ever more concrete reflection of it" (p.234). And "Dialectics regards contradiction as a necessary form of development of knowledge, as a universal logical form. That is the only way to consider contradiction from the point of view of cognition and thought as a natural historical process controlled by laws independent from man's desires" (pp.234-235). Internal contradictions -- those that cause tensions within an object, such as the primary contradiction between exchange-value and use-value -- are the ones that drive changes in the object as participants work to resolve the contradiction (p.238; cf. p.266). And now we can see why Ilyenkov asserts that

objective reality is a living system unfolding through emergence and resolutions of its internal contradictions. The dialectical method, dialectical logic demand that, far from fearing contradictions in the theoretical definition of the object, one must search for these contradictions in a goal-directed manner and record them precisely -- to find their rational resolution, of course, not to pile up mountains of antimonies and paradoxes in theoretical definitions of a thing. (p.244)

And "Dialectical contradiction is not in this case an insurmountable barrier in the way of the movement of the investigating thought but, on the contrary, a springboard for a decisive leap forward in a concrete investigation, in further processing of empirical data into concepts" (p.251). A contradiction is "a necessary expression of a real fact in its origin" (p.253). And at this point in the book, we can see clearly how crucial it is -- despite its modernist, teleological leanings -- to the "third generation" reconceptualization of activity theory. Without Ilyenkov's discussion of the object and the elaboration of contradictions in its development, activity theory would have a much less articulated discussion of development on its hands. In particular, Ilyenkov's discussion of internal and external contradictions suggests that we can't understand networks of activity by simply looking for ways in which discrete activity systems link up; we have to understand these linkages as interpenetrating activity systems that foster internal contradictions.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

(Tracing Genres through Organizations and Activity-Centered Design)

Originally posted: Tue, 09 Aug 2005 08:57:25

Discussions are heating up over a recent post of Don Norman's in which he urges us to move away from "human-centered design" and toward "activity-centered design." The latter term is based on "my own brand of 'Activity Theory,' heavily motivated by early Russian and Scandinavian research." (But not on the book by the same title, which happens to be in the same book series as mine.) Norman once again issues his call for designers to be dictators and to design around "activities." In his understanding, "activity is a coordinated, integrated set of tasks."

Dan Brown and Peter Merholtz have both been kind enough to mention my book as a counterexample to Norman's heavy-handed design dictatorship, and Dan in particular nails one of the problems with Norman's conception: it's static. As I wrote in a comment on Dan's blog, Norman doesn't seem to have taken into account the central way in which activity theory handles change, through contradictions. That's not terribly surprising, since design-as-dictator strategies tend to attempt to find the one best way to perform an activity (without reflecting much on the criteria for making that judgment), and then maximize stability by forcing users to learn and use the system as designed. This, I think, is why it's so vital to look at so-called "third generation" activity theory, which pushes contradictions to the forefront and -- more importantly -- attempts to describe networks of interpenetrating, developing activities and how they interact with each other.

Elsewhere, Andrew Otwell reacts to Norman's piece by asking, "I wonder to what extent UCD?s and Activity Theory?s expectations of design inputs (deep examination of the formations of user goals, dissection of community and social network relationships) are really artifacts from an era in computing that?s passed." The question is valid: much activity theory work on IT, until recently, drew deeply on the Scandinavian participatory design tradition from the early to mid 1980s. (I have a piece on the subject coming out in Technical Communication Quarterly this fall.) But the more recent "third generation" work has taken the knowledge economy/distributed capitalism more seriously and attempted to work out theoretical and methodological tools for addressing more rapid, less stable work formations. Search for "knotworking" on my site and you'll see what I mean.

As I say in my book, I think the key challenge will be to provide sustainable structures on which workers can build and formalize their own innovations. Since the book was published, we've seen an explosion of such tools. So when Dan praises 37 Signals, I agree -- and I see opportunities in applying "third-generation" AT to disparate activity networks using similar tools. >

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