Unreal Nature

January 22, 2011

The Scuttling Intellect

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:40 am

… whatever order emerges in either mind or culture, it is not produced by some regnant central process or directive structure; it is produced by the play of . . . well, whatever it is that is, in the case, in play.

This is from the essay “Imbalancing Act: Jerome Bruner’s Cultural Psychology” in the collection Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics by Clifford Geertz (2000):

… For Bruner, the critical enabling factor, the thing that brings the mind to focus, is culture — “the way of life and thought that we construct, negotiate, institutionalize, and finally (after it is all settled) end up calling ‘reality’ to comfort ourselves.” Any theory of education that hopes to reform it, and there hardly is any other kind, needs to train its attention on the social production of meaning. The terms upon which society and child — the “reality” already there and the scuttling intellect thrust bodily into it — engage one another are in good part worked out in the classroom, at least they are in our school-conscious society. It is there that mentality is most deliberately fashioned, subjectivity most systematically produced, and intersubjectivity — the ability to “read other minds” — most carefully nurtured. At least in the favorable case, not perhaps entirely common, the child, “seen as an epistemologist as well as a learner,” moves into an ongoing community of discoursing adults and chattering children where “she . . . gradually comes to appreciate that she is acting not directly on ‘the world’ but on beliefs she holds about that world.”

… The door Bruner, sensitive as always to the practicalities of research, wants to open, not altogether surprisingly, given recent developments in “discourse theory,” “speech-act analysis,” “the interpretation of cultures,” and “the hermeneutics of everyday life,” is narrative.

Telling stories about ourselves and about others, to ourselves and to others, is “the most natural and the earliest way in which we organize our experience and our knowledge.”

… Growing up among narratives, one’s own, those of teachers, schoolmates, parents, janitors, and various other sorts of what Saul Bellow once mordantly referred to as “reality instructors,” is the essential scene of education — “we live in a sea of stories.” Learning how to swim in such a sea, how to construct stories, understand stories, classify stories, check out stories, see through stories, and use stories to find out how things work and what they come to, is what the school, and beyond the school the whole “culture of education,” is, at base, all about. The heart of the matter, what the learner learns whatever the teacher teaches, is “that human beings make sense of the world by telling stories about it — by using the narrative mode for construing reality.” Tales are tools, “instrument[s] of mind on behalf of meaning making.”

Our stories, our histories quite naturally coincide with what anthropology does. Geertz considers how this weaves anthropology into Bruner’s ideas and vice versa:

… To the abiding puzzles afflicting psychology — nature and nurture, top down and bottom up, reason and passion, conscious and unconscious, competence and performance, privacy and intersubjectivity, experience and behavior, learning and forgetting — will be added a host of new ones: meaning and action, social causality and personal intention, relativism and universalism, and, perhaps most fundamentally, difference and commonality. If anthropology is obsessed with anything, it is with how much difference difference makes.

… At a time when monomanic, theory-of-everything conceptions of mental functioning, stimulated by local developments in neurology, genetics, primatology, literary theory, semiotics, systems theory, robotics, or whatever have come increasingly into fashion, what seems to be needed is the development of strategies for enabling Bruner’s “different construals of [mental] reality” to confront, discompose, energize and deprovincialize one another, and thus drive the enterprise erratically onward. Everything that rises need not converge: it has only to make the most of its incorrigible diversity.

… whatever order emerges in either mind or culture, it is not produced by some regnant central process or directive structure; it is produced by the play of . . . well, whatever it is that is, in the case, in play. The future of cultural psychology depends on the ability of its practitioners to capitalize on so turbulent and inelegant a situation — a situation in which the openness, responsiveness, adaptability, inventiveness, and intellectual restlessness, to say nothing of the optimism, that have characterized Bruner’s work since its beginnings are peculiarly well-suited.



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