Peter E Jones

"Symbols, Tools, and Ideality in Ilyenkov"


The paper attempts to clarify some aspects of the meaning of the term ‘ideality’ in the works of E V Ilyenkov. It is in fact an offshoot from a larger project (Jones, in preparation) on the relevance of Ilyenkov’s work to the study of language and communication, in which the concept of the ‘ideal’ will be explored in greater depth. However, given the references to Ilyenkov’s concept in recent published work and in electronic discussion, a more immediate clarificatory exercise may be useful. One question, for example, which has been repeatedly posed is whether artifacts in general, and, in particular, instruments of labour or tools can be considered ‘ideal’ together with words and other symbols. The general concensus appears to be that they can, but I do not think that this fits with Ilyenkov’s understanding of the term. I will, therefore, argue that such interpretations of Ilyenkov, notably Bakhurst (1991, 1995), Engestrom (1996), Cole (1996), and Leont’ev (1997), amongst others, are incorrect in subtle, though important, respects. Unfortunately, this will involve a fair number of lengthy quotations but it is impossible to deal with the issues in dispute without detailed references to the relevant works. Some general theoretical implications of what might look to be a rather sterile terminological disagreement will be sketched very briefly in the final section of the paper.

Ideality and artefacts

The concept of the ‘ideal’ is one of the most difficult, amongst many difficult concepts in the Marxist philosophical tradition. It is also, arguably, one of the most important. Ilyenkov himself stressed its significance for ‘any socio-historical discipline’ (1977a: 95) and devoted considerable time and energy to its exploration in published work stretching over a period of 17 years. But this body of work is far from easy to understand and assimilate. As David Bakhurst, the leading Western interpreter of Ilyenkov, puts it: ‘The problems he addresses are so massive and multidimensional that his answers often seem too quick, condensed to the point of unintelligibility’ (Bakhurst, 1991: 175-176). Little wonder, then, that we are all struggling with this concept.

Bakhurst’s excellent discussion (op.cit: Chapter 5) reveals the scope and significance of the concept of the ideal in Ilyenkov’s work but also, I think, incorporates a slight error. Bakhurst approaches the concept via a discussion of artefacts (op.cit: 181, cf also Bakhurst, 1995:160-161). The difference between something being an artefact, for example a table, and being a natural object like a lump of wood has to do with human activity: ‘When an artefact is fashioned, human activity is somehow embodied [voploshchennyi] in the natural object’ (op.cit:182). He explains:

‘Ilyenkov does not just mean that, when an artifact is created, some material object is given a new physical form. This is true, but something a natural- scientific account could capture. Rather, in being created as an embodiment of purpose and incorporated into our life activity in a certain way - being manufactured for a reason and put to a certain use - the natural object acquires a significance. This significance is the "ideal form" of the object, a form that includes not a single atom of the tangible physical substance that possesses it...It is this signifance that must be grasped by anyone seeking to distinguish tables from pieces of wood’ (loc.cit, also quoted in Cole, 1996: 117-118)

He continues:

‘Ilyenkov sometimes explains this significance by appeal to the concept representation. A purely natural object takes on significance when it comes to represent something with which its corporeal form has "nothing in common", a form of human activity...Objects owe their ideality to their incorporation into the aim-oriented life activity of a human community, to their use. The notion of significance is glossed in terms of the concept of representation: Artifacts represent the activity to which they owe their existence as artifacts’ (op.cit: 182- 183).

The proposition that ‘objects owe their ideality to their incorporation into the aim-oriented life activity of a human community’ is surely correct. However, Bakhurst’s exposition involves the assumption that the converse of the above proposition is also true, namely that ‘objects incorporated into the aim-oriented life activity of a human community are ideal’. This assumption is at the heart of his argument that ideality can be explained or derived from the nature of artifacts in general, but it is, I believe, invalid. Let us scrutinise the argument point by point.

First of all, if things are ideal because they are created as the embodiment of particular purposes then anything and everything connected with human activity becomes ideal as long as there is, as it were, an ‘idea’ behind it. So not only the instrument of labour, eg the spade I dig with, but the product of labour, the hole I dig, is ideal, since it realises the idea of a hole, or the aim of digging a hole, that I worked towards. Not only the bakery, but the bread made in the bakery and which I eat, is ideal. And people too: the parents’ aim of having a child is realised in the child, who thus becomes an ‘ideal’ (as well as a real) person. If everything connected to or involved in human activity is ideal, then the term loses all meaning.

Secondly, if we choose, instead, to ground ideality in the use or function of objects rather than the idea behind them, then we immediately run up against a contradiction. The table, as a humanly-created artifact, certainly functions in a socially determined and accepted way (to eat meals off, to support a fruit bowl, etc) which its wooden nature per se is not responsible for. But this function, pace Bakhurst, actually does include or embrace every single atom of the tangible physical substance ‘possessed’ by the function. The ‘table function’ has to be exercised by a physical table made of physical stuff (eg wood) constructed in such a way as to be strong enough to permit that function; the use of the table (as a table) - its ‘significance’ - is indissolubly connected with and conditioned by its precise physical properties. The computer I am using is resting not on ‘significance’ but on something completely tangible. The function itself, furthermore, is governed by laws of physical nature (eg gravity) which are independent of our aims and purposes. The point is even clearer if we move from tables to instruments of labour:

‘An instrument of labour is a thing, or complex of things, which the worker interposes between himself and the object of his labour and which serves as a conductor, directing his activity onto that object. He makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some substances in order to set them to work on other substances as instruments of his power, and in accordance with his purposes (Marx, Capital Volume 1: 285).

Consequently, it is impossible to equate ‘ideality’ - what Bakhurst elsewhere refers to as ‘non-material properties’ (op.cit: 175) - directly with the socio-historically formed functioning of useful artifacts, tools, instruments of labour etc which consists of setting their ‘mechanical, physical and chemical properties’ to work, something a natural-scientific account could, indeed, capture. In short, ‘ideality’ does not mean use or function in general.

Thirdly, there is a problem with Bakhurst’s interpretation of Ilyenkov’s ‘representation’. Artifacts do not as a general rule represent the activity to which they owe their existence and in which they function: the mechanical digger, or the power station do not ‘represent’ the digging process or the process of generation of electricity; they do not ‘stand for’ anything else in that process but are simply used (and, indeed, used up) as instruments without any kind of ‘representative’ function at all. This does not preclude the possibility that such artefacts may have an additional symbolic function: there may be some symbols or an insignia on the digger, or some aspect of its design may serve to represent the company that manufactured it etc. In that case a number of functions intersect simultaneously in the body of the artifact. But these functions are logically, and philosophically distinct: when the digger digs it does so by virtue of its mechanical and physical, ie purely material, action on the object; when it represents the company it does so by virtue of a purely conventionally established, ‘ideal’ relationship between it and the company, a relationship in which it has, materially, nothing in common with what it represents. Consequently, while Bakhurst’s exposition draws on essential features of Ilyenkov’s concept of the ideal - the idea of function within human aim-oriented life-activity and the concept of ‘representation’ - it ends up, I submit, by over-extending the concept to artifacts in general.

Ideality and ‘form of value’ in Capital

In order to get to the root of the difficulties it is necessary to take a closer look at how Ilyenkov develops this concept of ‘ideality’ from Marx’s economic work. Ilyenkov draws from Volume 1 of Capital where the ‘dialectic of the transformation of a thing into a symbol, and of a symbol into a token, is...traced...on the example of the origin and evolution of the money form of value’ (1977a: 273). The ideality of the value form, he argues, ‘is a typical and characteristic case of ideality in general, and Marx’s conception of it serves as a concrete illustration of all the advantages of the dialectical materialist view of ideality, of the ideal’ (1977b: 90-91). Elsewhere, he refers to the form of value as ‘the most typical case of the idealisation of actuality, of the act of birth of the ideal’ (1977a: 267).

Marx treats the commodity as a double-sided entity: a unity of ‘use-value’ and ‘exchange-value’. Crudely put, the former is the use to which it is put and the latter how much it costs. Although the needs which the commodity serves and the uses to which it is put are socio-historically developed, and not, therefore, given by ‘nature in the raw’, nevertheless its use-value is realised through its being used, ie through a process of consumption in which the commodity, for example an instrument of labour, may be physically used up and disappear. In such cases, use-value per se is not ideal but a direct function of the ‘mechanical, physical and chemical properties’ of the useful object as discussed above.

Exchange-value (or ‘value’ for short), on the other hand, is not realised at all in the sphere of consumption or use but in the process in which one commodity is exchanged for another commodity prior to the realisation of their use-value. When a pair of boots, say, is exchanged for a sack of corn, though the physical form and particular types of labour involved in their production are quite different, the one is ‘equated’ with the other in terms of value. For the owner of the boots, the value of the boots is represented by or as the corn, and for the owner of the corn the value of the corn is represented by or as the boots. A property of one object (the boots) is represented by another object (the corn) with which ‘its corporeal form has "nothing in common"’ (Bakhurst, op.cit: 183).

The value of the boots takes the form of the corn (and vice versa) and it is this form which is ideal, and which is a type of ‘representation’ where one thing stands for another thing. The corn is the ‘ideal form’ or ‘ideal image’ of the boots (and vice versa). It is important to note that the ideality of the value form lies not in the content or substance of value as such, ie the amount of labour embodied in the useful object: useful objects or artefacts will always embody amounts of labour, whatever form of society exists. Rather, the ideality of the value form lies in its form of appearance within the capitalist mode of production in which the value of commodity X takes the form of commodity Y. It is the ideality of the value form which paves the way for the emergence of the money form of value, in which one commodity - gold - comes to act as the representative of, or to stand for or ‘symbolise’, the value of any commodity. In Bakhurst’s exposition of the concept of ‘ideality’, therefore, there is a failure to distinguish between the two logically different and opposed aspects of the ‘artifact’: the ‘use-value’ or function of an artifact which, in the case of a table or a tool, is entirely ‘un-ideal’ and is conditioned by the physical properties of the said objects independently of the social formation in which they are produced; and the ‘form of value’ of a commodity which is purely ‘ideal’ and ‘distinct from its natural form’ (Marx, op.cit: 152).

Of course, the analysis of the value form is only an illustration of the social genesis and nature of ideality and concerns the ‘idealisation’ of a relatively narrow dimension of productive activity, whereas ‘all nature is idealised in man and not just that part which he immediately produces or reproduces or consumes in a practical way’ (Ilyenkov,1977a: 276). The human life process, therefore, constantly generates an increasing number of ‘ideal forms’ or forms of ‘ideal image’ mediating the myriad forms of historically developed and developing social practice:

‘So all the things involved in the social process acquire a new "form of existence" that is not included in their physical nature and differs from it completely - their ideal form’ (1977b: 86).

But when Ilyenkov speaks of ‘ideal form’ he is referring purely to ‘things’ which have a representative function or play a role in the symbolic mediation of activity, like language or the value form, and never to instruments of labour or commodities in general:

‘At first hand, transformation of the material into the ideal consists in the external fact being expressed in language, which is "the immediate actuality of thought" (Marx)’ (1977a: 262).

And elsewhere, he argues:

‘The ideal is immediately realised in a symbol and through a symbol, i.e. through the external, sensuously perceived, visual or audible body of a word. But this body, while remaining itself, proves at the same time to be the being of another body and as such is its "ideal being", its meaning, which is quite distinct from its bodily form immediately perceived by the ears or eyes’ (op.cit: 266).

And when he occasionally enumerates some of the phenomena which have such a symbolic or ideal function, instruments of labour are never included, e.g.: ‘The book, statue, icon, diagram, gold coin, tsar’s crown, banner, the theatrical production and the dramatic theme which gives it structure’ (Ilyenkov, 1991: 234), or as described in the following passage:

‘the image is objectivised not only in words, and may enter into the system of socially evolved knowledge not only in its verbal expression. The image is objectivised just as well (and even more directly) in sculptural, graphic and plasthic forms and in the form of the routine-ritual ways of dealing with things and people, so that it is expressed not only in words, in speech and language, but also in drawings, models and such symbolic objects as coats of arms, banners, dress, utensils, or as money, including gold coins and paper money, IOUs, bonds or credit notes’ (1977b: 79).

Thus while ideality is a property or aspect of the activity of social humanity - ‘the form of social human activity represented in the thing. Or, conversely, the form of human activity represented as a thing, as an object’ (Ilyenkov, 1977b: 86, cf the quotation in Bakhurst, op. cit: 183) - it is realised ‘immediately’ not in any or every object fashioned by human hands but in a special set of ‘symbolic’ objects which constitute ‘the world of representations [mir predstavlenii]’ (Ilyenkov, 1991: 235). Ideality is not the whole of culture but ‘an aspect of culture, one of its dimensions, determining factors, properties’ (Ilyenkov, 1977b: 96). Whether an object is ‘ideal’ or not is not, therefore, a question of whether it was fashioned in order to embody or realise a particular aim or idea. In fact, such a characterisation would run counter to the materialist philosophical premisses of Ilyenkov’s whole account, since it begs the question of the very source and form of such aims and ideas. Ilyenkov is particularly insistent on this point:

‘What is this "something" which is represented in the sensuously perceptible [chustvenno sozertsaemom] body of the other thing (event, process, etc)? From the point of view of consistent materialism this "something" can only be another material object. Since from the point of view of consistent materialism there is not and cannot be in the world anything other than moving matter, the infinite aggregate of material bodies, events, processes and states...By "ideality" or the "ideal", materialism has to mean that quite specific - and identifiable by strict criteria [strogo fiksiruemoe] - correlation between (at least) two material objects (things, processes, events, states) within which one material object, while remaining itself, takes on the role of representative of the other object, or, more exactly, of the universal nature of this other object, the universal form and law of this other object’ (1991: 253).

He makes the same point even more clearly elsewhere:

‘What is this "other", this difference, which is expressed or represented here? People’s consciousness? Their will? By no means. On the contrary, both will and consciousness are determined by this objective ideal form, and the thing that it expresses, "represents" is a definite social relationship between people which in their eyes assumes the fantastic form of a relationship between things’ (1977b: 86).

The crucial point is not that tools embody human aims and that this is what makes them ideal; the point is that human aims - the conscious aims with which humans act to produce what they need - are themselves ideal: human aims are nothing but the material process and outcome of activity in ideal form. The ideal image is ‘the object of production’ (ie the outcome of productive activity) converted into (or ‘ideally posited’ as) ‘an internal image, as a need, as a drive and as purpose’ (1977a: 260, quoting from Marx, Grundrisse). The distinction between things that are material and things that are ideal is not, therefore, a question of what is in the heads of the users of such things, but is a fact about how things function in the real process of social production - a material (not conceptual or semiotic) process which, in its own self-development and differentiation, generates an ideal (or semiotic) ‘image’ in the form of a relation in which some things (words, pictures, money etc) come to stand for other things. This, indeed is the special and vital function which ideal forms fulfill in human life-activity: they allow the goals, aims, drives, purposes, strategies and forms of action and cooperation of social humanity to be represented outside of, prior to and independently of the real activities which engender them:

‘the ideal is only there where the form itself of the activity corresponding to the form of the external object is transformed for man into a special object with which he can operate specially without touching and without changing the real object up to a certain point. Man, and only man, ceases to be "merged" with the form of his life activity; he separates it from himself and, giving it his attention, transforms it into an idea’ (1977a: 278).

Furthermore, the ideal form reproduces not the chaotic, accidental, empirical detail of things involved in human activity but ‘their universal, socially-human significance, their role and function within the social organism’ (1977a: 273). This point is often entirely overlooked or underestimated in discussions of ideality and the function of symbolic forms, including language, more specifically. Marx, for example, continuously drew attention to this essential and irreducible capacity of symbolic or ideal forms which made them necessary within social production:

‘Exchange value as such can of course only exist symbolically, although in order for it to be employed as a thing and not merely as a formal notion, this symbol must possess an objective existence; it is not merely an ideal notion, but is actually presented to the mind in an objective mode’ (Grundrisse: 145).

We may well want to say, all the same, that a tool is the material embodiment of an idea, i.e was fashioned for a particular purpose - but this does not make it an ‘ideal form’ or ‘image’ or give it a ‘semiotic’ nature. It is the purpose itself which is ideal and as this purpose is gradually realised during tool production, it turns into a material (and not an ideal) thing: ‘the ideal as a form of human activity exists only in that activity and not in its results...When an object has been created society’s need for it is satisfied; the activity has petered out in its product, and the ideal itself has died’ (1977a: 275-276). The categorisation of instruments of labour as ‘ideal’, therefore, in effect inverts the relationship of material to ideal as this relationship is conceived within materialist philosophy.

Other interpretations of ideality

Let us turn now to other recent interpretations of the concept of ideality. Michael Cole, for example, makes the following claim basing himself on Bakhurst’s discussion analysed above:

‘By virtue of the changes wrought in the process of their creation and use, artifacts are simultaneously ideal (conceptual) and material. They are ideal in that their material form has been shaped by their participation in the interactions of which they were previously a part and which they mediate in the present. Defined in this manner, the properties of artifacts apply with equal force whether one is considering language or the more usually noted forms of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute material culture. What differentiates the word "table" from an actual table is the relative prominence of their material and ideal aspects and the kinds of coordination they afford. No word exists apart from its material instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, hand movements, writing, or as neuronal activity), whereas every table embodies an order imposed by thinking human beings’ (1996: 117).

I submit that this definition of ideality is, like Bakhurst’s, too broad. On Cole’s interpretation, anything upon which human activity has had (and continues to have) an impact becomes ‘ideal’. This would include the whole of the ecosphere of the planet to the extent that it has been altered - e.g. polluted - by human economic, military and scientfic activity. Furthermore, the idea that the table ‘embodies an order imposed by thinking human beings’ begs the question as to the origins, nature and function of the ‘thinking’ which imposes such an order. Perhaps there are deeper issues at stake here, since Cole also favours the idea of ‘the primal unity of the material and the symbolic in human cognition’ (op.cit: 118) which arguably departs in a more radical way from a Marxist position.

There is also the issue of the ‘relative prominence’ of material and ideal aspects in words and artifacts. It is quite true, obviously, that words (and, indeed, all ‘ideal forms’) must have a material existence (‘are presented to the mind in an objective mode’, Marx above). However, in Ilyenkov’s terms, this is to miss the point. The materiality or ideality of a phenomenon has to do with its functioning within the system to which it belongs. ‘Material’ and ‘ideal’ therefore refer to quite distinct, and opposed, categories of phenomena. A word is just as material as a table, but in terms of its function within social activity it is ideal, purely ideal, 100% ideal, as it were. By the same token, the instrument of labour is 100% material. This is not a question of degrees of prominence or relative quantities of ideal and material: these aspects of being do not, so to speak, co-vary or complement one another but are quite opposite, incommensurable properties of things while yet in ‘unity’ in accordance with dialectical doctrine. Ilyenkov is actually quite explicit on this point. Ideal forms exist

‘outside the individual head, and are perceived by that head (by hundreds of such heads) as external ‘objects’, visible and tangible. However, if, on that basis, you put, say, "Swan Lake" or "King Lear" in the category of material phenomena, you commit a fundamental philosophico-theoretical error. A theatrical representation [predstavlenie] is precisely that - a representation, in the exact and strict sense of the word, in the sense that something different, something other is represented in it’ (1991: 234).

Now of course instruments of labour are not ‘natural’ objects, they are shaped, as Cole correctly argues, for a precise role in human activity. This makes them purely social products in the same way that language and other ideal forms are. But ‘social’ is not the same as ‘ideal’. Human society is a material organism, part of nature, and human social life is a material life process, though organised in a peculiar way, as ‘socially organised matter’. The ideal is an internal moment of the movement of socially organised matter. It arises and functions within material production as a ‘non-material’ ‘image’, dialectically reacting back on its material matrix. There is, then, a dialectic of ideal and material in human social production, which realises itself in the cyclic or spiral movement (cf Ilyenkov, 1982) by which the material is idealised (translated into symbols, images) and the ideal in turn is converted back into matter.

A similar misunderstanding is, in my view, detectable in Engestrom (1996) in his interesting discussion of the relationship between Activity Theory and the work of Bruno Latour. Engestrom argues quite clearly that Ilyenkov ‘developed the concept of the ideal to deal with the sociality of things’ (op.cit: 263). Such a conception of ideality would, of course, also embrace instruments of labour and Engestrom suggests this explicitly with the help of a quoted excerpt from Ilyenkov which appears to go against the interpretation I have been attempting to defend here:

‘Ideality includes "all the things that ‘mediate’ the individuals that are socially producing their life: words, books, statues, churches, community centres, television towers, and (above all!) the instruments of labour, from the stone axe and the bone needle to the modern automated factory and the computer" (Ilyenkov, 1977, p.98)’ (loc.cit).

However, if we turn to the whole passage from which this quoted extract is drawn, we may be led to a slightly different picture:

‘For this reason the "ideal" exists only in man. Outside man and beyond him there can be nothing "ideal". Man, however, is to be understood not as one individual with a brain, but as a real aggregate of real people collectively realising their specifically human life activity, as the "aggregate of all social relations" arising between people around one common task, around the process of the social production of their life. It is "inside" man thus understood that the ideal exists, because "inside" man thus understood are all the things that "mediate" the individuals that are socially producing their life: words, books, statues, churches, community centres, television towers, and (above all!) the instruments of labour, from the stone axe and the bone needle to the modern automated factory and the computer. It is in these "things" that the ideal exists as the "subjective", purposeful form-creating life activity of social man, embodied In the material of nature’ (Ilyenkov, 1977a: 98).

Note that the list of ‘things’ in the partial quote in Engestrom is not actually Ilyenkov’s list of ‘ideal’ forms, but a more general list of things ‘that "mediate" the individuals that are socially producing their life’. Ideal forms (‘words, books’ etc) are included in that list but are deliberately separated off by Ilyenkov from ‘instruments of labour’. The latter, he argues, mediate the process ‘above all’, implying that they have a primacy within the process of social production in relation to ideal forms. Hence the whole passage, arguably, presents the following two ideas: ideality is an aspect of social production and arises only within social production as a form of mediation; social production is nature-directed activity primarily mediated by instruments of labour and it is within such ‘mediated’ production that ideality arises.

Finally, A A Leont’ev, in his insightful discussion of the conception of the ‘object’ of human activity within Activity Theory argues that:

‘The human object is a human object, one which is signified, categorized, included in activity by dint of its socially significant objective properties and not as a purely material thing [chisto veshchestvennoe obrazovanie]. The object of activity, in other words, is always not just material, but also ideal, which means, by definition, social’ (Leont’ev, 1997: 242-243).

Here again, I suggest that the same slight misinterpretation is in evidence. The fact that an object of human activity (say coal, oil or some other form of energy) is ‘signified’ and ‘categorized’ does not make the object per se ideal. What is ideal is in fact the symbolically expressed ‘signification’ or ‘category’ embodying the ‘image’ of the object.

Conclusions and implications

I have argued that Ilyenkov’s category of ‘ideality’ includes language and other symbolic forms of representation, but not, as other authors have argued, tools or instruments of labour which belong to the category of material phenomena. Accordingly, it appears that some interpretations of Ilyenkov’s term have construed it too broadly.

Nevertheless, the very existence of ideal forms depends, in Ilyenkov’s Marxist perspective, on labour activity, i.e. the social production and use of tools. Ideality, as Ilyenkov makes abundantly clear, is an aspect of the life activity of social humanity and not an intrinsic, magical property of things as such. On the other hand, without the ideal image ‘man cannot in general exchange matter with nature, and the individual cannot operate with things involved in the process of social production’ (1977a: 274). Therefore, while the existence and functioning of a symbol ‘does not belong to it as such but only to the system within which it has acquired its properties’ (op.cit: 273) the symbol is still necessary, as a special ‘thing’ separate from the instrument of labour, from the activity itself and from the social relations entered into in the course of activity, in order for productive activity to be human labour, properly speaking. For this reason, it is important, it seems to me, not just to stress the social nature of ideal forms and the commonality of their social genesis alongside all other artifacts but also to explore the specificity of their nature and functioning within human activity. If we consider both tools and words to be ‘ideal’, on the other hand, we convert the whole of human culture to ‘meaning’ or ‘ideas’, as in the linguistic work of Michael Halliday, for example (cf Wells, 1994; Jones, 1997), something which is incompatible with both Ilyenkov and with the Vygotskian tradition of language research with which it is closely allied (cf Bakhurst, op.cit: Chapter 3) and which, from a philosophical point of view, obscures the secondary, derived nature of ideal forms as ‘images’ of material objects and processes. By the same token, the connection between Ilyenkov’s concept of ideality and the system of theoretical and scientific concepts which he took from Marx and further enriched would be broken.

Peter E Jones
Communication Studies
Sheffield Hallam University
Mundella House
Collegiate Crescent Campus
Sheffield S10 2BP
Great Britain
April 1998 


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