Mastaneh Shah-Shuja, Zones of Proletarian Development
Open Mute, London 2008
This book's title plays on a phrase familiar to most psychologists. Vygotsky, a psychologist in Russia before and after the 1917 seizure of power, coined the term 'zone of proximal development' as an element within his account of ability and development. The zone of proximal development identifies the difference between a person's performance on a task unaided and their performance in the company of a more experienced peer who offers guidance. Instead of emphasising fixed notions of individualised intelligence it directs attention toward the ability to benefit from instruction in social settings.
Similarly, 'zones of proletarian development' (ZPD) are co-created situations within which groups of oppressed people become better able to appreciate the character of their oppression and, simultaneously, rehearse and acquire the resources and skills necessary to challenge it. This learning is both social and practical, worked up in activity occurring under material conditions organised by capitalism and its attendant oppressions. ZPD turn 'quantitative growth in the struggles of different strata of the proletariat into a qualitatively new type of struggle' (p.31), and, Shah-Shuja argues, are characterised by confrontations with capital where the proletariat acquire abilities not just in themselves but for themselves.
There are problems with Vygotsky which Shah-Shuja recognises. To address them she also utilises analytics drawn from Bakhtin, and from activity theory or CHAT (cultural-historical activity theory). From Bakhtin she takes the notion of the utterance as unit of analysis, and the understanding of carnival as a transgressive, unruly happening which renders all equal and, in its negation of all orthodoxy, challenges every authority. From CHAT she takes a form of sociological-psychological analysis that understands activity as dialectically constituted within historically and materially constituted, tool-mediated systems, which it has the potential to transform, as well as merely reproduce. However, the text is also brimming with concepts borrowed from other sources, including mainstream and critical psychology, feminist social theory, Deleuze and Guattari, Situationist theory, and writers on organisation from Kautsky and Lenin to Pannekoek and Cardan (i.e. Castoriadis). This potentially dry material is consistently enlivened by an original array of cartoons...