Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Reading :: Alexander Romanovich Luria: A Scientific Biography

Alexander Romanovich Luria: A Scientific Biography (Plenum Series in Russian Neuropsychology)
By Evgenia D. Homskaya

I've mentioned A.R. Luria many times on this blog. But, in part due to remarks Chuck Bazerman made at CCCC last month, I decided to read more about Luria. Fortunately, UT's library has this biography—which currently retails on Amazon for $199.

The biography was written by Evgenia D. Homskaya (Moscow State University), who defended her own thesis under Luria in 1957 and went on to a prestigious career in her own right. Perhaps in consequence, this biography (first published in Russian in 1992) is not critical of Luria—although it is critical of the ideological hurdles he faced.

Although the biography addresses Luria's childhood, youth, and some of his personal life, for the most part it really is a "scientific biography," focusing on his accomplishments in each decade. (Each chapter addresses a decade of his work—"The Twenties"; "The Thirties"—except for the first and last chapter.) Much of the material is familiar from other sources, such as Luria's job offer from Kornilov in 1921 (p.15) and his first meeting with Vygotsky in 1924 (p.19).

Looking back at the end of the Soviet Union, the author is able to criticize the "morbid atmosphere" of 1930s Russia (p.25), which (for instance) endangered Luria during his Uzbek expedition. In a footnote, the author notes Luria's "notoriously famous telegram to Vygotsky" in which he declared that "'Uzbeks don't have any illusions'" (p.26). The author adds: "The telegram was interpreted by the officials in the political sense, which eventually led to a moratorium on the continuation of research in Central Asia" (p.26). The author doesn't thoroughly explore the implications of this lesson for Luria, who changed his field and his vocabulary several times to avoid further conflicts with the ideological constraints of the Soviet Union.

The expedition "failed" in the sense that a resolution condemned the research, along with Vygotsky and Luria's cultural-historical theory (p.30). Worse:
With the political atmosphere in the country becoming more and more suppressive, Luria was forced to react to the resolution by leaving the institute and arresting his psychological-ethnographic activity. Shortly after that, the situation was aggravated by a mournfully famous decree on pedology, accusing all psychologists and teachers who followed this direction incompetent and racist and prohibiting the application of tests for psychological research on children. ... Vygotsky and his followers were drowned in interdictions and false accusations that affected Luria and his work in particular. (p.30)
Luria moved to Kharkov in 1932 (p.30), conducting research with "patients with localized brain damage" and studying medicine (p.31). But "collaboration with the leader of the Psychoneurological Academy turned out to be unsuccessful," so he moved back to Moscow in 1934; Vygotsky died the same year (p.31).

Luria began studying twins at the Medico-Genetic Institute, leaving to become a full-time medical student in December 1936; in January 1937, the head of the Institute and colleagues were arrested and their research was declared illegal (p.31)—just another one of Luria's many lucky escapes.

Chapter 4 covers the Forties, in which Luria worked on rehabilitating Soviet soldiers who had sustained brain injuries during WWII. Chapter 5 moves on the Fifties, in which Luria worked on defectology—and had yet another lucky escape. A "colloquium devoted to the problems of the physiological theory of I.P. Pavlov" involved "the reconstruction of the biological sciences in accordance with Pavlovian teaching and against any other trends of thought and cosmopolitanism" (i.e., "a feature of capitalist ideology that neglected national traditions, culture, and patriotism, and advertized the purposes of universal totalitarianism" (p.41). Physiologist A.G. Ivanov-Smolensky arranged this session, in which non-Pavlovian approaches were declared harmful. The author notes that this event paralleled Lisenko's 1948 declaration that genetics was a bourgeois pseudoscience (p.41). Ivanov-Smolensky's mechanistic "motoric method" became ascendant, and Luria "was blamed as a representative of an anti-Pavlovian direction in psychology" (p.42). His lab at Burdenko was closed (p.42), and he went to the Institute of Defectology (p.43). In 1952-53, the "Case of the Doctors" "accused doctors of Jewish nationality"; as an ethnically Jewish doctor, Luria was in danger. But this process was interrupted in 1953 by Stalin's death—another lucky escape for Luria (p.43). He rose to VP of Scientific Research at the Institute of Defectology (p.43) and in 1956, publishes a book whose implications successfully challenged the 1936 Pedology Decree (p.44).

Chapter 6 covers the Sixties. At the end of the 1950s, Luria was able to return to the Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery (p.53), where he focused on the question of memory (p.61). In the 1970s, Luria was able to revive cultural-historical theory, including having a monograph and his Uzbek expedition published (p.76). He argued that cognitive processes were determined by both the individual's experience and the common experience of mankind via language (p.76).

Ultimately, the author argues, Luria "collided" with authoritarian ideology in the 1930s and at the end of the 1950s (p.111). The author chronicles Luria's successful attempts to minimize the impacts of these collisions—he avoided the Gulag and worked up to his death—but I'd like to see more discussion of the forms that these attempts took. As Cole argues, Luria's maneuvers involved maintaining a relatively coherent research program while using the language of whichever approach was ascendant at the time, as well as escaping into adjacent fields (neurology, medico-genetic studies, brain trauma, defectology, aphasia) when necessary. These sudden changes and switchbacks meant that Luria was able to accomplish many things in many adjacent fields, but I wonder what his accomplishments would have looked like had he not been forced to maneuver around the vagaries of Soviet ideology.

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