Originally posted: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 20:08:15
I met Yrjo Engestrom once. He's over six feet tall, energetic, aging gracefully, impossibly fit, impossibly productive as an academic. Like a Nordic superman, he flies between the University of California, San Diego and the University of Helsinki. He radiates the clear-eyed certainty that you sometimes get with fervent Marxists.
I'm not sure whether to describe Engestrom as a Marxist. In this 1987 book -- published online, thankfully, because it's out of print -- his influences definitely include Marx and the Soviets who followed him, but they also include Peirce, Mead, Popper, etc. And although Engestrom talks about the key contradiction of capitalism (use vs. exchange value), Braverman, dialectics, and so forth, I think he attempts to move beyond the standard Marxist mode in his exploration of learning.
Like many Marxists, though, Engestrom writes densely. Maybe it's part of the Marxist aesthetic: lots of block quotes of other Marxists, few headings. And unlike some of his other books, such as Learning, working and imagining, this one has no empirical work. Instead, Engestrom analyzes Huck Finn, Robert Jungk's account of the making of the atomic bomb, and other nonempirical work. (Engestrom explains that fiction in particular is a good place to look for the sort of long-term learning patterns he identifies; I am skeptical.) Consequently, the book often seemed longer than it really is.
It does hold important lessons, though. This 1987 work sketches out the notion of learning by expanding (as opposed to learning by rote or learning as storing discrete bits of information), a key concept that permeates Engestrom's later work. He methodically describes each element of the learning process, provides an expansive methodology based on Scribner's description of Vygotsky's methodology, and links the whole mess to the notion of zone of proximal development. The last chapter attempts to lay the methodology out -- although, again, empirical cases would have helped quite a bit here.
At the same time, I notice some things that I think are amiss in this 1987 piece. One is that he tries to explicate dialectics ("the logic of expansion") by referring to Bakhtin. Bakhtin. The fellow who ridiculed dialectics as a stilted, artificial counterfeit of true dialogue! I also note a tendency to appeal too quickly to the abstract. Engestrom holds fast to the notion that learning is ascending from the abstract to the concrete, a notion that I have a hard time following -- and I don't think that's just because I am dense. Maybe there are some Continental reverberations that I am missing. Finally, everywhere in this piece are references to structures and systems -- even though Engestrom shows a willingness to examine idiosyncracies, variations, and differences, it's always with the intent of explicating structure and systematicity. I can see why Latour was so frustrated with him in the 1996 exchange I reviewed earlier.
This book was a struggle, but worth it.
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