Originally posted: Mon, 29 Aug 2005 09:36:26
Yrjo Engestrom has said more than once that to understand activity theory, you have to read Marx. And unfortunately my formal education didn't include Marx. So with some trepidation, I undertook the book on my own.
My feelings are mixed. Libraries have been written about the book, countries have reworked their economies around it, and entire fields have sprung up around it. So what can I say about it? Let's delineate the scope of this review a bit. I'm not a political theorist, economist, or sociologist, so I'll tend to skip over these aspects. Instead, I'll focus on Capital's impact on the sorts of things I've been studying: activity theory, dialectic, work organization, and work structure.
In those terms, I found Capital somewhat underwhelming -- simply because I've heard most of it before, from people who have drawn heavily from Marx's work. Braverman, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky, Leont'ev, Ehn, Bodker, Kyng, Engestrom, and even Zuboff and Maxmin have addressed Marx's masterwork so thoroughly, and fields such as sociology and cultural studies have drawn so freely from it, that reading the book gave me a sense of deja vu. (Engestrom was wrong, then, in a sense.) At the same time, Marx's painstaking description of the labor conditions of industrial capitalism gave me great insight into why Marx was so motivated to change things. When Marx drifts too far toward polemic, engaging in hasty generalizations and straw man attacks, it's worthwhile to keep in mind the conditions that he opposed.
Marx starts with the familiar-in-retrospect contradiction between use-value and exchange-value (p.126 -- actually the second page of Marx's text, which follows a lengthy set of prefaces and introductions). According to Marx, use-value comes from the abstracted human labor materialized in it, and the value of an article is determined by the amount of labor necessary for its production (p.129).
Commodity production necessitates a division of labor because it calls for heterogeneous forms of labor (p.132). Later, Marx argues that the division of labor is "an organization of production which has grown up naturally, a web which has been, and continues to be, woven behind the backs of the producers of commodities" (p.201). Marx describes this web as a chain of producers who in turn consume the products of other producers (p.201), and he later argues that "there develops a whole network of social connections of natural origin, entirely beyond the control of the human agents" (p.207). Marx gets into some really interesting discussion along these lines later, when arguing that manufacture takes two forms: heterogeneous and organic. Heterogeneous manufacturing is like watchmaking, in which different streams of supplies eventually come together (p.461); organic manufacturing involves the same material being progressively transformed, allowing the different stages to be isolated and to yield a chained division of labor (p.463) in which work that had been accomplished in one place, by one person, is distributed in space and time (p.464).
The division of labor is further discussed on p.456, where Marx really begins to analyze how industrialism had changed labor; he argues that each option becomes crystallized into an exclusive function of a particular worker (also see p.457). I can see how the notion of chained activity systems comes from this early industrialist understanding of human activity, and I can see why Zuboff and Maxmin argue that these conceptions have reached the end of their shelf life -- something that particularly leapt out at me in Marx's Ch.13.
One oft-quoted passage of Capital is Marx's comparison between bees and human architects; he argues that the architect conceives in advance, then constructs, whereas the bee works by instinct (p.284). The object of labor, he says, is anything that labor separates from its connection with the environment (p.284) -- a great summary of what others such as Ilyenkov would later develop theoretically and what activity theorists would eventually turn into the focus of activity theory. In this understanding, instruments of labor -- which can include even the earth itself (p.285) -- indicate the social relations among laborers (p.286). Notice that here we see the three points of the minimal activity theory triangle: subject, object, and mediational means! It's a short, sophisticated discussion of labor that neatly prefigures so much in the activity theory tradition. Indeed, Marx even makes the point that a product can shift from tool to object and back again (p.288, 289), that the object is "soaked" in labor (p.296), and that the product of the labor represents definite masses of crystallized labor time (p.297).
Underlying the above work, of course, is dialectic. Marx didn't discuss dialectic much -- more's the pity, since Engels took up the slack, and not well in my opinion -- but he has some interesting examples of how irregularities and conflicts led to more accurate investigations of friction (Arkwright) and steam (Watt) (pp.498-499).
As I said, Capital is a rich and fascinating book, and even though it sounds familiar from cover to cover, that's only because it prefigures so very much of what came later. In reading it, I found myself understanding activity theory, dialectic, participatory design, new economy literature, and so forth in new ways. It's a struggle -- nearly a thousand pages -- but the prose is surprisingly easy to follow and the examples are generally quite clear. Now I wish this book had been part of my formal education; it's a pity I waited until now to read it.
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