Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Reading :: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
By Paulo Freire

The link goes to a version of this famous book on Amazon, but (full disclosure) I downloaded a PDF of it recently. I read it late this summer, just before Matusov's Journey into Dialogic Pedagogy, which (you may recall) excoriated Freire for his later work in supporting totalitarian regimes. 

This isn't the first time I've read this book, of course. In fact, I read it as a PhD student in the mid 1990s in a class on radical pedagogy. Back then, I didn't approve of the book, but had a hard time articulating it. A quarter century later, I can articulate my problems with it, although I can also see past those problems to understand its contributions.

So let's talk about those contributions first. Freire is best known for two specific contributions to education theory. First is his critique of the "banking model of education," mainly in Chapter 2. In this model, 

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into 'containers,' into 'receptacles' to be 'filled' by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education ... (pp.71-72) 

Freire roundly criticizes this model, which is both enslaving and incorrect. Learning just does not happen in this way, as any educational psychologist can tell you. But the banking model, he says, mirrors oppressive society as a whole -- implying a monopoly on truth, reinforcing an understanding of active leadership and passive followers (p.73). That is, the banking model becomes a model of citizenship; "the 'humanism' of the banking approach masks the effort to turn women and men into automatons—the very negation of their ontological vocation to be more fully human" (p.74). In dicohotomizing everything (p.80), he argues, the banking model removes the students' (and citizens') ability to know.

Second is his argument that education should be a dialogue. As he says early in the book, "The correct method [of education] lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao" (p.67). This dialogue should not be a manipulation by teachers (revolutionary leadership) of the students—it must express the consciousness of the students themselves (p.69); in Bakhtin's sense, it can't be authoritative discourse, it must be internally persuasive. In dialogic education, in contrast to the banking model, "no one teachers another, nor is anyone self-taught (p.80). 

Now, let's talk about the issues I have with Freire. Freire was a central figure in inspiring liberation theology, a synthesis of Christian theology and socioeconomic analyses. Specifically, Freire (like many in the mid-20th century) based his socioeconomic analysis on the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin (MELS) analysis that posed the most direct challenge to capitalism in the mid-20th century. The fingerprints of both MELS and Christianity are all over the place in this book. The problem, of course, is that neither really coexists with dialogue in the sense that Freire tries to encourage—both identify an absolute truth and a teleology in which all will eventually know the truth as the come to a day of reckoning (and here I am specifically referring to the Stalinist viewpoint). Both subscribe to a Manichean view in which good and evil (or oppressed and oppressors) exist and struggle until a day in which good wins and evil is abolished. 

So how do you square dialogic pedagogy with an absolute truth? Simple: You argue that if people are allowed to conduct dialogue, they will eventually come to the Truth. And this is essentially what Freire argues. The oppressed themselves, he says, will liberate both themselves and (eventually) their oppressors (p.44) from this dialectical contradiction between opposing social forces (p.46). As they discover that they are oppressed, the students discover the dialectical relationship they have with the oppressor, without which the oppressor cannot exist (p.49). This concrete contradiction is objectively verifiable and must be transformed to liberate both parties from the contradiction (p.50). This liberatory pedagogy cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors themselves—it must spring from the oppressed, leading to a "process of permanent liberation" for all (p.54); "As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors' power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression" (p.56). This dialectic yields "the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation" (p.56, my emphasis; notice that the Soviets and the New Testament both refer to the idea of a new man: see Ephesians 4:17-24). 

Shuttling between a Christian and a MELS vocabulary, Freire continues: "Conversion of the people requires a profound rebirth. ... Only through comradeship with the oppressed can the converts understand their characteristic ways of living and behaving, which in diverse moments reflect the structure of domination" (p.61). Diverse social ills are laid at the feet of the oppressor-oppressed dialectic: When the oppressed man beats his children or drinks too much, it's because of the oppressor (p.65). "It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves" (p.65). And that realization cannot be bestowed, it cannot be propagandized, it can only be realized through dialogue (p.67), which must express the consciousness of the students themselves (p.69). 

Later, Freire argues that this dialogue leads to unity: "This affirmation [that oppressors and oppressed transform each other] might appear to imply division, dichotomy, rupture of the revolutionary forces; in fact, it signifies exactly the opposite: their communion" (p.129). And a few pages later: "Unity and organization can enable [the oppressed] to change their weakness into a transforming force with which they can re-create the world and make it more human" (p.145). These terms—communion, unity, organization—suggest what Freire has explicitly told us elsewhere: When he says dialogue, he's talking about dialectic, leading to a more densely woven unity. Give people the room to talk and they will listen to something similar to what evangelicals characterize as the "still small voice"—they will come to the same truth.

We can see why Matusov was initially enchanted by this idea, but we can also see how Freire eventually became involved in developing propagandic programs for totalitarian regimes. If Truth exists and you expect people to find it, what happens if they don't? You have to give them hints. And if they don't take your hints—if their dialogue doesn't lead to your conclusions? Clearly they have not listened to the "still small voice" or they have consciously decided to side with the oppressor. Evangelicals understand this willful disobedience as taking sides against God, leading to Hell; Stalin characterized it as counterrevolutionary activity, leading to the Gulag. Freire, for his part, doesn't even seem to entertain the possibility that dialogue would lead to somewhere other than his conclusions! 

I've been a bit harsh in this review, and I expect my view is colored by my recent research in Soviet history as well as my evangelical upbringing. Certainly you should read this classic text as well and draw your own conclusions. In Bakhtin's terms, I invite you to enter this dialogue and see if it is internally persuasive for you. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Reading :: Journey into Dialogic Pedagogy

Journey into Dialogic Pedagogy

By Eugene Matusov

For research purposes, I'm not especially interested in pedagogy. But I am interested in dialogism, and Matusov has been considering dialogism from the cultural-historical perspective for a long time—specifically its relationship with Hegelian and Marxist dialectics. So I picked up this book and was not disappointed. Although it is rough around the edges in places (it could have used a bit more editing), the book considers dialogism from a really useful angle. 

The resulting review will be a bit self-serving, focusing more on my concerns than Matusov's. If your concerns are closer to his (that is, if you're focused on pedagogy), I encourage you to pick up the book yourself. It should be well worth it! But given my more selfish aims, I'll mainly focus on the relationship between dialogicality and monologicality, terms that are based in Bakhtin.

Matusov gets at this relationship in Ch.2, where he reviews Socratic dialogic pedagogy. He notes that many commentators have focused on the dialectical aspects of these dialogues, and agrees that "Socratic dialogic pedagogy involves a focus on questioning contradictions" in others' thinking — but this is dialectic in the Socratic sense, not in the Hegelian or Marxist sense, which "involves analysis of mutually constituting oppositions" (p.19). Rather, "Socratic dialogic pedagogy is based on internally persuasive discourse and involves transformation of the student's subjectivity or the student's 'ideological becoming'" (p.19; the internal quotes refer to Bakhtin). He argues that Socrates was pedagogically a "radical constructivist," although epistemologically he was a "radical anti-constructivist" (p.21). Matusov conducts a content analysis of the Meno to demonstrate.

In Ch.4, Matusov turns to Paulo Freire's dialogic pedagogy—a pedagogy with which Matusov was initially infatuated, but later connected with totalitarianism. Matusov really lets Freire have it: He charges that "Freire personally participated in two totalitarian communist regimes in Africa: in Guinea-Bissau and in Sao Tome and Principe in the mid 1970s ... For some strange reason, neither he nor his dialogic critical pedagogy for liberation registered the totalitarian oppression happening in those African countries as recorded by human rights organizations at that time that Freire worked there. ... Freire's own texts about his work ... suggest ... that he and his dialogic critical pedagogy willingly and, arguably, uncritically, participated in the political propaganda campaigns of these totalitarian communist regimes" (p.74). Matusov has the receipts and displays them throughout the chapter.

I've heard that a cynic is a disappointed idealist, and Matusov appears to be a cynic when it comes to Freire: he was initially taken by Freire's dialogic pedagogy, but realized that "Freire did not develop a pedagogical argument for the need of dialogue in education" (p.79). "According to Freire, the regime of dialogue requires love and the equality of free people searching for truth. Truth emerges as a consensus among free participants in a dialogue, 'dialogical people,' that is tested by their actions. Dialogical people cannot impose truth on each other neither by epistemological authority ... nor by force ... but only through critical dialogue tested by the participants' actions" (p.81). So, for Freire, "Dialogue as a meaning making process is also a process of humanizing the world and, thus, themselves" (p.81). 

Matusov takes issue with this characterization: "Like many scholars rooted in Hegel and Marx, Freire seemed to prioritize consensus over disagreement in a dialogue. ... In dialogue, people become complete. It is 'bigger' than its participants are. ... One can speak monologically on behalf of the Dialogue" (p.82). Matusov points to a footnote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.74) in which Freire approvingly quotes Chairman Mao as saying "we must teach the masses clearly what we have received from them confusedly"; Matusov comments: "This totalitarian circular reasoning claims a communist monopoly on truth" and adds, "Freire did not recognize this monologic trick but instead enthusiastically but, uncritically, accepted Mao Tse-Tung's propaganda statement" (p.82). 

Matusov later argues that "Freire's version of dialogic pedagogy can be characterized as cultural-dialogical because he believed that knowledge emerged dialogically but exists in culture (e.g., artifacts and historically established consensuses). Thus, Freire's approach can be characterized still as instrumental, Freire's own insistence to the contrary" (p.92). 

This brings us back to Matusov's case against Freire in Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome. Ruthlessly, Matusov argues that the texts that Freire prepared for teachers in these countries were "classical totalitarian texts" (p.98, his emphasis), all bearing "the same birthmarks of totalitarianism," "including cult of personality" (p.98), "authoritarian argumentation," "propaganda of the official Party line," "full loyalty and conformity to the regime," "lack or suppression of critical stand toward the regime" (p.99), "disregard to human suffering from the hands of 'liberators,'" "circular reasoning of self-righteousness," and "totalitarian ideology" (p.100; he supplies examples for all of these claims). Matusov notes that Freire wrote all of these texts from outside the regimes, so they cannot be explained by fear or material gain; "Freire's production of totalitarian texts was obviously intrinsic" (p.100). After examining one text closely, he adds: "Notice please that all statements in Freire's curriculum texts are given in a form of commands" (p.102—so much for internally persuasive dialogue). Matusov closes the chapter with an unequivocal condemnation of "totalitarian socialist regimes" and "a high majority of the radical left [which] has remained silent" rather than criticizing such regimes (p.105). (Matusov is not positioning himself as a member of the right here; he espouses social justice as well as conventional left positions, both here and throughout the book.) Ultimately, he concludes, Freire's liberation pedagogy was "too monologic" both in concept and in practice, prioritizing Freire's idea of social justice over "searching for truth" (p.109).

In Ch.5, Matusov returns to more pleasant topics, specifically Bakhtin on polysemy, dialogue, and monologue. He argues that there are three "vistas" on dialogue and monologue in Bakhtin: oppositional, complementary, and excesses. 

  • Oppositional relations between the two are best known to educators, but focusing just on oppositional relations inevitably leads to monologue! (p.112)
  • Complementary relations lead us to the concept of "voice," which Matusov argues is an alternative to Western "identity." "Any voice is characterized by a certain degree and quality of dialogicality and monologicality reflecting both centrifugal and centripetal forces of human consciousness and human community" (p.112).
  • Excesses in both monologism and dialogism are "associated with stable breakdowns in a community that are often politically grounded in social classes" (p.112).
Examining a classroom incident, Matusov argues that "meaning is never generated but emerges on boundaries" (p.120). Furthermore, "In excessive dialogism, a unified, solidified, respected, pacified world is impossible because there is no a [sic] community that backs up the individual" (p.133). Matusov notes that one of Bakhtin's examples of excessive monologism is schooling (p.139), and he adds that "excessive monologism accepts only one consciousness — the consciousness of an authority or a tradition" (p.140). In dialogism, "truth is not the product of this dialogic process, but it is the process itself" (p.141). 

Skipping way ahead, in Ch.12, Matusov considers dialogue and activity—specifically activity as articulated in activity theory. He argues that "there seems to be some kind of tension between the notions of learning and dialogue, on the one hand, and the notion of activity, on the other." He argues that "activity is responsible for the monologicity aspect of discourse" because "joint collective activity is about accomplishing something" and 

the subject of such an activity is a unified, shared, common understanding — one consciousness, as Bakhtin would say. A joint activity becomes problematic when shared understanding is not achieved, partially achieved, or achieved about wrong things. Although heteroglossia can be viewed as a productive force in the activity at its initial and intermediary stages, at the final phase, it has to be eliminated. From this point of view, activity is essentially anti-dialogue (anti-heteroglossic). However, as Bakhtin showed, this unifying, centripetal force is an important aspect of any discourse defining one's voice, the recognized unity of consciousness. The problem starts when the other complementary and necessary aspect of discourse—namely dialogicity—is either ignored or attempted to actively exclude from the analysis (and design) or eliminate from the discourse, when a voice becomes the voice. In the latter case, there becomes a tendency to establish a regime of excessive monologism. (p.383)

Matusov outlines three principles of the activity approach:

  1. Activity is defined by mediation;
  2. Human social and psychological phenomena is [sic] shaped by the humans' participation in the activities, practices, and institutions; and 
  3. Activities transform and develop through dialectical contradictions. (p.383)
Getting personal, Matusov discusses studying psychology in the 1970s and 1980s from Davydov and colleagues and being attracted by the activity approach (p.384). But this attraction was disrupted as he read Bakhtin and realized that "Bakhtin saw Hegelian dialectics as some kind of deception" (p.385). Recalling a seminar that he arranged as a young scholar, Matusov quotes Soviet philosopher Anatoly Arsen'ev as saying that "Bakhtin realized on the ethical grounds that Hegel and the activity approach in its logical conclusion lead [sic] to totalitarianism and genocide of any dissent" (p.385). Matusov was shocked, but "Later, I realized that the activity approach focuses on the monologicality aspect of discourse and indeed if it is pushed too far leads to excessive monologism as it happened with Marxism" (p.385). Yet

Monologicity has to be appreciated and recognized as an important and necessary aspect of discourse. For example, although Bakhtin criticized dialectics in many of his writings, he also acknowledged that dialectics can produce "a higher level dialogue," "dialectics was born of dialogue so as to return again to dialogue at a much higher level (a dialogue of personalities) (Bakhtin et al., 1986, p.162). Activity approach has to be complemented by focus on dialogicity (Engestrom et al., 1999). (p.385)

He argues:

The activity approach has rarely considered these types of byproduct-oriented activity processes. I propose, at risk of being severely criticized by my colleagues, that activity approach mostly focus [sic] on re-productive activities, in which the issue of "how" (to achieve something known) is more important to participants than "why" and "what" (they try to do what they do). In contrast, creatively productive activities develop a new product. (p.386)

Later, he states: "Dialogic opposition involves an irresolvable confrontation of person-ideas" (p.403)—and it is this irresolvability that distinguishes it from dialectic (my observation, not Matusov's). He concludes the chapter by approving of Engestrom's (1999) "call for focusing Activity Theory on dialogic aspects of activity" and arguing for viewing teaching as a special activity (p.414).

There is more, much more, to this 428-page book. But I'll leave it there. Overall, I found this book to be very helpful, especially as I consider the relationship between dialectics and dialogics in activity theory. If you're interested in that—or if you're interested in the actual subject of the book, dialogical pedagogy (!)— check it out.

Reading :: Global Social Media Design

Global Social Media Design
By Huatong Sun

This isn't the first time I have read this book—I blurbed it!—but I picked it up a second time recently as I was working through a problem in my current manuscript, and was struck again by how insightful and timely it is. Here, Sun extends the CLUE framework from her first book into the CLUE2 framework, focusing on culturally localized user experience and empowerment. How can we better understand designed interfaces as they are deployed, received, and used across cultures? 

Specifically, she examines the design of social media across different cultures (including the US, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea), combining macro-level literature review and historical analysis of interfaces with micro-level case studies of users. To interpret these case studies, she draws on practice theory, dialogism, and postcolonial and decolonialist theory as they have been deployed in rhetoric, professional communication, CSCW, HCI, anthropology, and many other fields and disciplines. 

Along the way, Sun provides a wide-ranging review of applicable thought and lots of measured discussion of her own theoretical and methodological journey. For instance, in Ch.2, she notes that cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) seems instrumental because it lacks a political edge (p.50) and broadens her scope to practice theory and dialogism. In Ch.3, she focuses on difference in cross-cultural design, specifically "the differences that emerge from various categorical classifications such as ethnicity, race, age, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and ability" manifesting as "ways of life" (pp.56-57). She asks four questions: 

First, how does difference come into being? Second, what is the nature of difference ontologically? Third, how should we treat the difference methodologically and practically? Fourth, as designers, how can we turn differences into design resources? And how should we design with, across, and for cultural differences? (pp.57-58)

She methodically works through these questions, drawing on a broad set of literature to provide a coherent framework that underpins the case chapters.

The case chapters start with Ch.4, examining Facebook Japan—a story of initial traction followed by Facebook slumping against localized competitors such as LINE. As she notes, "the Facebook Japan case is one of the many examples that static meanings out of context are often transferred through cross-cultural design, neglecting local cultural preferences and use habits" (p.97). Specifically, FB Japan promoted "a hegemonic Eurocentric worldview (i.e., a Western model of networked sociality) and such a static meaning is complicated by the ideology of postcolonial conditions" (p.97). For instance, FB Japan followed American ideas of networked sociality by insisting on "a real name" (p.90), while "Japanese users like to keep a high level of anonymity for their profiles" in keeping with the Japanese values of "group consensus and harmony—affiliation" (p.91). To examine this conflict, Sun discusses affordances—not as static properties, but as "dialogic discursive relations" (p.103).

This framing brings us to the second case in Ch.5: Weibo of China. Weibo is a microblogging platform that was once described as the "Twitter of China" (p.137). But in its uptakes—that is, in taking up the genre of microblogging and accumulating localized practices—Weibo applied hybridization and reinvention strategies "to make contingent alliances and highlight the connections necessary to acquire agency for culturally sustaining designs" (p.137). As Sun argues, hybridization ("the cultural logic of globalization (Kraidy, 2005)" p.138) connects "concrete local experiences" with "general and abstract global processes," p.138). "It is through hybridization that heterogeneous elements and processes are linked from structures of hierarchy and networks," she adds, likening it to splicing (p.138). Reinvention involves "copycats" duplicating features (for instance, after Yik Yak became popular with US high school students, Jodel was released and became popular in some European markets; p.141). But reinvention involves uptake: "An uptake is formed through a process of hybridization as a form of localized reinvention" (p.142). In Weibo's case, 

local variations—uptakes—form an open, globally networked assemblage with dialogic relations flowing through the elements: Local uptakes share similar technological affordances and generic features; the technological affordances evolve all the time to account for the ongoing structuration; and a successful use for a particular task in one locale—the successful response to one situation—is expected to be reproduced in another locale (e.g., embedding rich-media content in the timeline of a microblogging service). Furthermore, an assemblage does not necessarily have a hierarchical structure or a center as a system, owing to the complex interactions between entities and their constant movement and flows in the contemporary condition. Therefore, a globally diffusing technology such as Twitter could be regarded as both the core technology, for those inspired by it, and an uptake, for those it was inspired by, in a global context. (p.143)

 In Ch.6, Sun examines a "war of social messaging platforms," including WeChat (China), LINE (Japan), and KakaoTalk (South Korea)—all messaging systems that resided on her friend's phone (p.147). She adds WhatsApp (USA) and applies "a relational view of design to explore how the material and the discursive are fused to articulate for culturally sustaining value propositions and global modalities" (p.148). To examine these, she oscillates between macro-level data such as number of users over time (p.150) and micro-level case studies of specific users in Japan, South Korea, China, the United States, and Germany (p.157). Using genre, she analyzes how discursive affordances are articulated as culturally sustaining value propositions (p.158), examining them in terms of design, innovation, and cultural consumption. Among other things, she notes that global mobilities—one example is that of a Hong Kong student studying in the US—shape "people's use of social messaging apps" and demonstrate "how hybrid and global a participant's experience was" (p.178). 

Based on these cases, Sun argues in Ch.7 that we turn the notion of a "design crossroads" into a "design square" with global interconnectedness (pp.190-191; she connects this notion to the 2 or "squared" in CLUE2). That is, she argues for a relational view of design that puts social practice at the center (p.192). 

In my blurb on the back of this book, I enthuse: "The design insights are eye-opening—and deeply needed as we design information and interactions for a global world." Still true! I'll come back to this book over and over—for my current manuscript, for thinking about genre and dialogism in the design space, for cites to sources on decolonialist design approaches, and for teaching my graduate and undergraduate students. 

Should you pick up a copy? Of course! Especially if you are involved in the social media or information design space. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Reading :: Down to Earth

Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
By Bruno Latour

Latour published two books in English in 2018, both focused on the question of climate. This one is the thinner, and I think it’s also more oriented to casual readers. It aims to answer the question: How did we get to this point, at which ecological degradation is increasingly obvious, yet steadfastly denied? Latour argues -- and here I consult the summary on the back of the book -- that powerful people have concluded that our ecology is really threatened and that they can survive only by abandoning the dream of a common future with others. Exploding inequalities, massive deregulation, and globalization are the result. As an antidote, Latour argues that we must reposition politics to lead us not toward the global or the national, but toward the Earth.

Latour connects these three phenomena -- deregulation, increasing inequity, and climate change denial -- and argues that “the elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there will be no future life for everyone that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible -- hence deregulation; they have decided that a sort of guilded fortress is to be built for those (a small percentage) who would be able to make it through -- hence the explosion of inequalities; and they have decided that, to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of the shared world, they would have to reject absolutely the threat at the origin of this headlong flight -- hence the denial of climate change” (pp.18-19). He acknowledges that this looks “too much like a conspiracy theory” (p.21), yet can be documented.

In any case, he argues that “the issue of climate-change denial organizes all politics at the present time” (p.24) and adds that “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world … Here we find the habitual vice of epistemology, which consists in attributing to intellectual deficits something that is quite simply a deficit in shared practice” (p.25). 

To sketch out this controversy, he uses a simplified diagram similar to those he’s used elsewhere, arguing that we are dealing with “attractors”: the local opposed to the global, and at right angles to that axis, the out-of-this-world attractor of Trumpism (rejecting the world, returning to an imagined past) opposed to the terrestrial (i.e., “down to Earth”). Each attractor makes it appear as if time is flowing in its direction. 

Latour sees Europe as having started the trend of ecological degradation and, more generally, the orientation toward the global (p.102), yet it also has the ability to lead de-globalization -- since the US obviously won’t.

What to make of all this? Many commentators have argued that Latour oscillates between two irreconcilable positions: crude Machiavellianism, in which a few powerful interests pull the strings, and radical symmetry, in which every actant in the network has agency. I’ve largely dismissed this claim of irreconcilability, arguing that for Latour, a more sophisticated Machiavellianism applies for every actor. But here, Latour seems to be confirming his critics. Our poor reaction to climate change is due to a conspiracy of the elites (crude Machiavellianism) -- and at the same time our reckoning is coming because the terrestrial is also an actor (radical symmetry). This is a great story, since it allows us to place the blame on a few people we don’t much like anyway, rather than acknowledging our own roles -- our “shared practice” -- in practices that are leading to our mutual detriment. It’s much easier to revile than to repent!

But ultimately, I was underwhelmed by this analysis. It’s too neat, too simple, and too dependent on the abstract actors that Latour used in We Have Never been Modern. I don’t see it moving the ball on climate change discourse or even the analysis of it. For that reason, unless you’re a Latour completist, I think you could skip this book and instead read Facing Gaia, the more scholarly one that he put out at the same time -- the book that I will review next.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

(Reading roundup: Mutizwa Mukute and colleagues)

I haven't reviewed a set of articles for a while, but recently I've been reading some work that applies and extends cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to explore and facilitate community action in southern Africa. This work has been promoted by Yrjo Engestrom and Annalisa Sannino, and it's noteworthy in part because it applies the Change Labs methodology to community action contexts.

The articles I've read include:

Colvin, J., & Mukute, M. (2018). Governance in Ethiopia: Impact evaluation of the African Climate Change and Resilience Alliance (ACCRA) project.

Lotz-Sisitka, H., Ali, M. B., Mphepo, G., Chaves, M., Macintyre, T., Pesanayi, T., … McGarry, D. (2016). Co-designing research on transgressive learning in times of climate change. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 20, 50–55.

Lotz-Sisitka, H., Mukute, M., Chikunda, C., Baloi, A., & Pesanayi, T. (2017). Transgressing the norm: Transformative agency in community-based learning for sustainability in southern African contexts. International Review of Education, 63(6), 897–914., K., & Mukute, M. (2019). Exploring group solidarity for insights into qualities of T-learning. Sustainability (Switzerland), 11(23).

Mukute, M. (2016). Dialectical critical realism and Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT): Exploring and expanding learning processes in sustainable agriculture workplace contexts. In L. Price & H. Lotz-Sisitka (Eds.), Critical realism, environmental learning and social-ecological change. New York: Routledge.

Mukute, M., & Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2012). Working with cultural-historical activity theory and critical realism to investigate and expand farmer learning in Southern Africa. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(4), 342–367.

Mukute, M., Mudokwani, K., McAllister, G., & Nyikahadzoi, K. (2018). Exploring the Potential of Developmental Work Research and Change Laboratory to Support Sustainability Transformations: A Case Study of Organic Agriculture in Zimbabwe. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 25(3), 229–246.

CHAT isn't a stranger to facilitating community action—see for instance the work that Bodker did with unions in the UTOPIA project—but here, Mukute and colleagues apply it across geographically different communities and to issues of decolonization. Because of the wider scope, Engestrom and Sannino cite this work to illustrate a new iteration of CHAT (Yamazumi, n.d.; Engestrom & Sannino 2016). Mukute and colleagues at Rhodes University have examined cases such as “(1) sustainable agriculture in Lesotho; (2) seed saving and rainwater harvesting in Zimbabwe; (3) community-based irrigation scheme management in Mozambique; and (4) biodiversity conservation co-management in South Africa” (Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2017, p.897; cf. Lotz-Sisitka, Pesanayi et al. 2016; Mudokwani & Mukute 2019; Mukute 2016; Mukute & Lotz-Sisitka 2012; Mukute et al. 2018). In these related studies, the authors examine how “expansive learning might also facilitate instances of transgressing norms – viewed here as embedded practices which need to be reframed and changed in order for sustainability to emerge” (Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2017, p.898). 

Mukute et al. (2018) specifically examine organic agriculture in South Africa. They state that activity theory points to “the limitations of current problem-solving approaches that have been developed in and tend to serve a capitalist-based approach, which commodifies knowledge, natural resources, and life forms.” (p.244). In their interventionist research with “eight interacting district organic farmer associations” across Zimbabwe (p.233), they conducted four Change Laboratory sessions. The first session, involving 99 organic farmers and 10 extension workers, was conducted over eight days and focused on identifying challenges and generating mirror data for the later sessions. The second through fourth sessions involved 39 farmers and seven content specialists, and focused on analyzing mirror data and then modeling and refining solutions (p.235). The fourth section in particular involved three groups presenting solutions to each other and critiquing these solutions (p.236). Through these discussions, the interventionist researchers identified how “that the matters were not only interconnected but also stratified”:

For example, climate change causes water shortages through droughts and longer midseason dry spells, and water shortages undermine food production, which results in food insecurity and poverty. Research participants’ analyses of the matters of concern using problem tree analysis suggested that the nexus issues such as food insecurity, water, and climate change had multidirectional causal relationships. For example, poverty and food insecurity make farmers vulnerable to climate change, and climate change weakens farmers’ abilities to produce food and get out of poverty. (p.237)

Through this Change Laboratories approach, Mukute et al. argue, the participants were able to participate in transgressive learning, which challenges “unjust and unsustainable norms and practices that have become normalised” (p.229). In transgressive learning,

transformations to sustainability may involve transgression of unjust and unsustainable norms. Such transgression and associated transgressive learning are interested in protecting and caring for the earth and life in and on it. ... Such learning can be supported through the CHAT-informed expansive learning process using the CL method. However, the current CHAT conceptualisation of goods and services that are produced, exchanged, and distributed seems to exclude common good and ecological services that are important in transformations to sustainability. (p.245)

It's fascinating work. If you're interested in CHAT and its development, and/or how to apply CHAT at broader scope, and/or how CHAT can work with decolonization projects, definitely check it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Reading :: Hegel


I’m continuing to avoid reading Hegel by reading Hegel commentaries. Next up is this 12-chapter overview of Hegel’s thought by Frederick Beiser. 

Beiser includes, among other things, a short chronology of Hegel’s life from birth to death (p.xix) and a discussion of relevance. He clarifies that he treats Hegel in historical context rather than as a contemporary philosopher -- that is, Beiser explores Hegel’s thought as it related to his time rather than mobilizing it in current debates (a choice that seems appropriately Hegelian) (p.5). 

The book includes the obligatory biography, then covers 5 parts:

  • Early ideals and context

  • Metaphysics

  • Epistemological foundations

  • Social and political philosophy

  • Philosophy of culture

Rather than thoroughly reviewing these, I’ll just note some things that caught my attention.

In discussing Hegel’s grounding in Plato and Aristotle, Beiser notes:

Third, Plato and Aristotle understood nature in organic terms, as ‘a single visible living being’. In all these respects Plato and Aristotle presented the sharpest contrast with the modern worldview, whose self is divided into soul and body, whose state is a contract between self-interested parties, and whose concept of nature is mechanical. It was the great achievement of Hegel and the romantic generation to have reaffirmed the classical ideal of unity against the modern worldview. (p.38)

That ideal of unity, of course, is at the root of Hegel’s dialectic. Related (at least in my estimation):

It is indeed noteworthy that Hegel, along with Hölderlin and Schleiermacher, explicitly denied personal immortality and excoriated the entire ethic of salvation based on it. From his early Berne manuscripts to his 1831 lectures on the philosophy of religion Hegel attacked the ethic of salvation for its self-centered concern for the fate of the soul.

True to his immanent ideal of the highest good, Hegel believed that the meaning of life could and should be achieved in the community alone. We find satisfaction and purpose in our lives, he argued, when, like the ancient Roman and Greek, we contribute to the common good and help to create its laws. The ancient Greeks found immortality and meaning in their lives by living for the polis, which was a whole greater than themselves, and which they knew would survive them; they had no concern for their individual salvation, for the fate of their soul after death. In Hegel’s view, the Christian ethic of personal salvation was only a cry of desperation, a feeble Ersatz, after the loss of community. (p.43)

In terms of unity, Hegel (and Schelling) sought grounding in Spinoza:

Schelling and Hegel greatly admired Spinoza for his monism, for showing how to overcome dualism when Kant, Fichte and Jacobi had only reinstated it. True to Spinoza, their principle of subject–object identity essentially means that the subjective and the objective, the intellectual and the empirical, the ideal and the real –however one formulates the opposition – are not distinct substances but simply different aspects, properties or attributes of one and the same substance. (p.64)

But, Beiser points out, unity creates a problem:

In the end, the problem of contingency presents Hegel with a dilemma. The realm of contingency must be inside or outside the system. If it is inside the system, then contingency has only a subjective status, so that there is no explanation of real contingency. If, however, it is outside the system, it has an objective status; but it then limits the absolute and introduces a dualism between form and content. (p.79)

Hegel addressed this question via organicism, in which

The goal of subject–object identity contrasted sharply with the reality of a dualism between subject and object in ordinary experience. These dualisms can be overcome, Hegel maintains, only if we accept an organic concept of nature according to which the subjective and the objective are only different degrees of organization and development of a single living force. (p.105)

Recall that Hegel was a big influence on Vygotsky (which is why I’m reading about Hegel). Beiser describes Hegel’s use of the familiar terms of internalization and externalization:

In some striking passages from The Spirit of Christianity Hegel calls what both produces and results from love, the whole process of self-surrender and self-discovery, of externalization and internalization, spirit (Geist). He first uses the term in a religious context, in writing about how the spirit of Jesus was present at the Last Supper. He wrote that the spirit of Jesus is the spirit of love, which first makes itself objective, externalizing itself in the bread and wine, and then makes itself subjective, internalizing the bread and wine through the act of eating. Hegel likens the process to that of understanding meaning from a written word; the thought is first objectified in the sign, and it is then resubjectified when the sign is read as having a specific meaning. (p.115)


The opposing movements involved in the experience of love – its externalization and internalization, self-surrender and self-discovery – Hegel will later call ‘dialectic’. Hegel will later use the term in this sense to describe the process of spiritual development. It is important, however, to distinguish at least two meanings of this concept: the ontological, whereby it defines something happening in reality; and the methodological or epistemological, whereby it signifies a method of doing philosophy. (p.115)

Dialectic, of course, is one of Hegel’s primary contributions (and the contribution that most interests me). Beiser explains it further:

Hegel’s term for his own anti-methodology is ‘the concept’ (der Begriff), which designates the inherent form of an object, its inner purpose. It is the purpose of enquiry to grasp this inner form, Hegel argues, and it is for this reason that he demands suspending all preconceptions. If the philosopher simply applies his a priori ideas to the subject matter, he has no guarantee that he grasps its inner form or the object as it is in itself; for all he knows, he sees the object only as it is for him. When Hegel uses the term ‘dialectic’ it usually designates the ‘self-organization’ of the subject matter, its ‘inner necessity’ and ‘inherent movement’. The dialectic is what follows from the concept of the thing. It is flatly contrary to Hegel’s intention, therefore, to assume that the dialectic is an a priori methodology, or indeed a kind of logic, that one can apply to any subject matter. The dialectic is the very opposite: it is the inner movement of the subject matter, what evolves from it rather than what the philosopher applies to it. (p.160)

Like everyone else who writes about Hegel, Beiser cautions us that Hegel did not use the schema thesis-antithesis-synthesis (p.161). He also argues that dialectic is not some sort of alternative logic (p.161). Rather, it’s about the unity of the subject matter: “Indeed, the point of the dialectic will be to remove contradictions by showing how contradictory predicates that seem true of the same thing are really only true of different parts or aspects of the same thing” (p.162). Regarding contradictions, Beiser adds:

The dialectic arises from an inevitable contradiction in the procedures of the understanding. The understanding contradicts itself because it both separates things, as if they were completely independent of one another, and connects them, as if neither could exist apart from the other. It separates things when it analyzes them into their parts, each of which is given a self-sufficient status; and it connects them according to the principle of sufficient reason, showing how each event has a cause, or how each part inheres in a still smaller part, and so on ad infinitum. Hence the understanding ascribes both independence and dependence to things. The only way to resolve the contradiction, it turns out, is to reinterpret the independent or self-sufficient term as the whole of which all connected or dependent terms are only parts. (p.164)

Beiser adds:

Hegel states that there are three stages to the dialectic: the moment of abstraction or the understanding; the dialectical or negatively rational moment; and the speculative or positively rational moment. (p.167)

Beiser covers many other aspects of Hegel’s thought as well, but let’s stop there. I found this discussion to be helpful for understanding Vygotsky, but also Marx. If you’re trying to understand Hegel but, like me, are trying to either work up to or avoid reading the original, Beiser has written a clear summary that you should check out.

Reading :: Rethinking Cultural-Historical Theory

Rethinking Cultural-Historical Theory: A Dialectical Perspective to Vygotsky

In this book, Dafermos reviews how Vygotsky’s work has been taken up in different parts of the world. Dafermos emphasizes the dialectical underpinnings of Vygotsky’s theory, which he believes have been lost in some of this work.

This argument begins on page 1, where Dafermos affirms that "diverse ways of interpreting and conceptualizing Vygotsky's legacy in different parts of the globe have been developed" (p.1) and "the expansion and implementation of a scientific idea beyond the boundaries of the field of its initial appearance and formation raises important epistemological and methodological issues. This question preoccupied Vygotsky in his work ‘The historical meaning of the crisis in psychology’" (p.2). Dafermos charges that Vygotsky has been transformed into a cure-all, and "The whole complexity of Vygotsky’s theory has been lost" (p.3). Vygotsky's implicit assumptions are unrevealed. Just as Vygotsky criticized methodological eclecticism, Dafermos critiques postmodernist approaches "connected with the celebration of fragmentation and incoherence" and attempts " to reconstruct Vygotsky’s research program not as a given, static set of ready-made concepts and ideas, but as a developing process" (p.3).

Dafermos argues:

By reformulating the previous insights, the investigation of the development of a theory (in this particular case, cultural-historical theory) includes the study of the following interconnected aspects:

(1) the sociohistorical context within which a theory is formed,

(2) the scientific context, trends in the field of philosophy and science,

(3) the specific characteristics of the subject matter of the investigation,

(4) the particular subjects involved in the production and application of scientific knowledge, the development of their research program,

(5) a study of the personal network of these subjects and their relations to the scientific community (p.5)

He adds that cultural-historical theory is best understood dialectically: "From a dialectical perspective, cultural-historical theory is examined as a developing, unfinished project that emerged and formed historically in the process of solving concrete conceptual and practical tasks" (p.6). Here, he quotes Ilyenkov to claim that "From a dialectical perspective, the internal contradictions of a concrete object constitute the basic source of its own development. Moreover, the emergence and resolution of contradictions can be considered as a course of development of scientific knowledge" (p.6). Thus "A dialectical approach brings to light the logic of the development of Vygotsky’s theory in terms of a drama of ideas and discloses zigzags, returns and loops in the process of its building, rather than a linear accumulation of new knowledge" (p.7). 

Unfortunately, he says, "One of the difficulties in grasping the essence of cultural-historical theory is connected with the devaluation of the dialectic underpinnings of cultural-historical theory" (p.6). That is the problem his book addresses: "The gist of the argument of the book is that Vygotsky’s theory should be examined not as a static and closed system of ideas, but as a developmental process" (p.7) -- thus we examine Vygotsky's mistakes as he works through them to improve the theory (which -- and this is my own commentary -- is still a story of ascent).

With that introduction in mind, Dafermos reviews the context of psychology and philosophy leading up to Vygotsky’s work, specifically the crisis of psychology that Vygotsky addressed in his “Crisis” manuscript (p.47). 

Acknowledging that "there is a need to develop a holistic account of Vygotsky’s research program in the process of its own development. In other words, Vygotsky’s research program can be analyzed as a developmental process" (p.56), Dafermos overviews different authors' perceived periods of Vygotsky's work (pp.60-63). He affirms that 

The idea of the cultural origin and development of higher mental functions constitutes the “hard core” of cultural-historical theory. But this leading idea develops further in different stages of the development of cultural-historical theory. (p.63)

He overviews Vygotsky’s roots in Hegel, praising Jan Derry’s book on the subject (p.67), and notes that "Self-creation of Man was considered by Hegel both as a process and a result [of] his own work” (p.75). Mediation also makes an appearance:

Hegel developed the concept of mediation as opposite to immediacy. It refers to conceptualization through the union of two terms by a third. “it is only through the mediation of an alteration that the true nature of the object comes into consciousness” (Hegel 1991, p. 54). Vygotsky recognized his debt to Hegel in developing his concept of mediating activity. (p.75)


The Vygotskian concept of mediating activity cannot be adequately understood without bringing to light its clear connection with the Hegelian concept of mediation and Marx’s concept of labor. (p.75)

He adds, "Taking into account the Hegelian concept of mediation and Marx’s concept of labor, Vygotsky attempted to investigate how Man becomes master of himself by using sign-mediating activity" (p.76). 

Skipping a bit: Dafermos emphasizes that Vygotsky’s “Crisis” manuscript opposed eclecticism (p.119). Vygotsky was working toward a unified theory of psychology. In his “concrete” period, Vygotsky transitioned from signals to signs (signification) (p.129). He distinguished between material (labor) tools, which are oriented to labor, and psychological tools, which are oriented toward controlling one’s own “mental processes” (p.130). In examining psychological tools, 

Vygotsky’s studies of mediating activity opened the path for the investigation of the problem of consciousness. At this point, a theoretical inconsistency in Vygotsky’s theoretical interpretation can be found. Vygotsky discovered the cultural origin of higher mental functions, rather than the overall human psyche. The realm of lower mental functions continued to be considered at the level of naturalistic immediacy. The study of the more developed and mature forms of psychological processes enabled to bring to light their social essence. The less developed sides of the subject matter (the lower mental functions) continued to be assessed in light of the previous naturalistic approaches. (p.152)

Sign mediation was significant for Vygotsky and the cultural-historical program in general, and “Vygotsky’s research focus gradually shifted from the study of the sign mediation to the investigation of sign meaning" (p.163).

Dafermos gets to development, which Vygotsky understood via dialectics: "Development is a contradictory process of continuous and discontinuous, directed and spontaneous, quantitative and qualitative transformations of personality as a bio-social entity and a member of society as a whole" (p.177). Vygotsky identified four laws of child development:

1) "development is a process that takes place in time and flows cyclically" (177)

2) "child development is not uniform and proportional" (177)

3) "there are not only progressive, forward-reaching processes, but also regressive processes of development" (177)

4) "the law of ‘metamorphosis’ in child development. The development is not reduced to simple quantitative changes, but it includes a chain of qualitative changes and transformations. Vygotsky designated the qualitative changes that emerge at each age as ‘novoobrazovanija’ (‘neoformations’)" (178-179)

In the last stage, Dafermos adds, "Vygotsky developed his theory of consciousness in the context of a critical dialogue with the representatives of Gestalt psychology and especially with Kurt Levin" (p.196). And  "In the context of a critical dialogue with Kurt Levin and other representatives of Gestalt psychology, Vygotsky was driven to the conclusion that it is necessary to develop a dialectical, holistic, historical approach to consciousness" (p.197).

That approach involved understanding meaning: "Meaning was treated by Vygotsky as the unit for the investigation both of thinking and speech. Moreover, for Vygotsky meaning constitutes the unit of the analysis of human consciousness" (p.198). Dafermos adds: "For Vygotsky, generalization and communication constitute two interconnected aspects of human consciousness reflected in meaning. Meaning in its interconnection with sense as the unity of generalization and communication serves as the unit of analysis of consciousness" (p.198). This brings us to Vygotsky’s focus on word meaning:

For Vygotsky, consciousness as a whole is reflected in the microcosm of a word. The analysis of the microcosm of a word was developed as the key strategy for the investigation of the macrocosm of consciousness. The top-down strategy of the investigation of consciousness that was developed by Vygotsky (1987a) during the last period of his life was focused on word meaning as a unit of analysis. The bottom-to-top strategy of the investigation of consciousness that was proposed by Leontiev (1983), Galperin (2003a) and others emphasizes object-oriented activity. These two different perspectives were contrasted in the examination of the puzzle of consciousness. (p.199)

In this context, Dafermos addresses the split between Vygotsky and the Kharkovites, who would go on to develop activity theory: "From my perspective, the relations between cultural-historical theory and activity theory were more complex and contradictory than it is usually presented in literature. Activity theory is not a simple continuation of cultural-historical theory, and simultaneously, it is not reduced to its total rejection" (p.202). But "Vygotsky’s approach to consciousness was unacceptable in the social context of the 1930s" (p.202).

A little later on, Dafermos lauds "Vygotsky's commitment to social justice" (p.224). I’ll just note that the road to Stalinism was paved with good intentions, including Vygotsky’s good intentions of elevating the Uzbeks with what was in retrospect ethnocentric research, and that although Vygotsky did take a position studying defectology (essentially what we would call special needs education) as Dafermos notes, his consistent focus was on the other end of the spectrum: creating a New Soviet Man modeled on the Nietzchean Superman.

In any case, Dafermos provides a list of types of dialectics:

  • spontaneous (naive) (p.244)

  • Sophistic (eristic) (244)

  • Platonic (244-5)

  • Aristotelian (245)

  • Stoic (245)

  • (then an account of how dialectics fell out of favor in early modern period) (246)

  • Kant (246)

  • Fichte (247)

  • Hegel (247)

  • Marx (247-248)

And he then discusses critiques of dialectics, characterized as misapprehensions (248). Incredibly, he does not mention Engels, whose Dialectics of Nature provided a hugely influential simplification of dialectics, or Stalin, whose compact explanation of dialectics in the Short Course (modeled on Engels) became required dogma in the USSR. 

Vygotsky, Dafermos says, used two conceptualizations of dialectics (p.251) 

  • A general outlook on nature, society, thinking (cf. Engels here)

  • A method for studying a concrete object in process of development

"Obviously,” he adds, “Vygotsky did not realize the difference between Engels’ concept of dialectic as a general world outlook and K. Marx’s concept of dialectic as the peculiar logic of the peculiar object" (p.252). Dafermos then goes on to discuss (in detail) Ilyenkov and his contemporaries' thoughts about dialectic.

Dafermos concludes by defending dialectics against postmodernism, charging that "The post-modern repudiation of all grand narratives of modernity including dialectics leads to the rejection of the project of human emancipation" (p. 297). I am not sure most postmodernists would agree.

Overall, I found this book to be highly interesting. Dafermos has clearly thought a lot about dialectics’ role in Vygotsky’s system, has provided a good overview of the development of dialectic (for which I am grateful), and has identified differences between cultural-historical theory and activity theory while still making room for reconciliation between the two. On the other hand, the book sometimes (unintentionally) reveals the limits of dialectics as a method of understanding human development. It’s a very useful book. If you’re interested in these issues as I am, definitely pick it up.