Monday, September 07, 2009

Teenage Caveman: or, Leroi-Gourhan Explains the Eternal Appeal of Teen Movies

Years ago I purchased a used copy of André Leroi-Gourhan's Gesture and Speech . My purchase at the time was motivated by a vague memory of a few references to Leroi-Gourhan in Anti-Oedipus combined with a desire to have some kind of ultimate library, made up of all kinds of obscure yet important texts. It remained unread and even untouched for years, and I only picked it up at the end of the summer after reading some of Bernard Stiegler’s writing. My first impression, which was perhaps already indicated by the multiple references throughout Stiegler’s writing, was that Leroi-Gourhan is perhaps more of a central figure for Stiegler than I first thought, much more central than Simondon.

I expected that Stiegler developed his general idea of the connection between technics and memory from Leroi-Gourhan. After all, the central thesis of Leroi-Gourhan’s book is that mankind emerges with the first tool, the tool that even in its most basic instrumental function is inseparable from the exteriorization of a memory, that anthropogenesis is inseparable from the history of technology. As Leroi-Gourhan writes:

“The whole of our evolution has been oriented toward placing outside ourselves what in the rest of the animal world is achieved inside by species adaptation. The most striking material fact is certainly the “freeing” of tools, but the fundamental fact is really the freeing of the world and our unique ability to transfer our memory to a social organism outside ourselves.”

This idea, the idea that mankind constitutes a memory through tools, figures, and language, simultaneously constituting a who (a sense of ethnic identity) and a what (a material culture) is central to Stiegler’s philosophy. What I did not expect is that Leroi-Gourhan would have his own version of the destructive effects of the modern transformation of culture and memory. Whereas Stiegler’s concern is primarily with the way in which the industrialization of memory through film, television, and the internet precludes even the minimum amount of interaction on the part of the individual, Leroi-Gourhan is more worried about the standardization and massification of a global monoculture. As Leroi-Gourhan writes:

“An increasingly small minority will plan not only society’s vital political, administrative, and technical programs but also its ration of emotions, its epic adventures, its image of a life which will have become totally figurative—for the transition from real social life to one that is purely figurative can take place quite smoothly.”

Two interesting passages that I would like to remark on follow from this, or rather are associated, since one actually comes before it in the text. The first is a prediction about the future, which is interestingly wrong in the way that only a fifty-year old book can be. Leroi-Gourhan predicts that generations will be increasingly raised on pre-packaged and pre-constituted cultural memories (his analogy is canned food) so much so that the future cultural producers will have no raw material, no unmediated experiences from which to draw on. Thus Leroi-Gourhan predicts the following:

“Ten generations from now a writer selected to produce social fiction will probably be sent on a “renaturation” course in a park a corner of which he or she will have to till a plough copied from a museum exhibit and pulled by a horse borrowed from a zoo. He or she will cook and eat the family meal at the family table, organize neighborhood visits, enact a wedding, sell cabbages from a market stall…and learn anew how to relate to the ancient writings of Gustave Flaubert to the meagerly reconstituted reality, after which this person will no doubt be capable of submitting a batch of freshened up emotions to the broadcasting authorities.”

(I am going to just remark in passing how much this sounds like a George Saunders story)

The ten generations have not yet come to past, but I still feel secure in declaring this to have missed the mark. Leroi-Gourhan assumes that social literature needs to be drawn from some kind of ideal of unmediated experience, of nature. What he has missed is one of the defining characteristics of so-called postmodern culture: the way in which the plurality of genres, clichés, and manufactured experiences can itself become the raw material of culture. Films, books, and music do not need to refer to anything else than other films or books, cut up and reassembled. There is no need to sell cabbages in order to relate to Flaubert, not when one could write
Madam Bovary and Mole Men.

Leroi-Gourhan suggests that this ideal of a totally manufactured experience is an impossibility in the second passage.

“The age we live in is still filled with survivals from the past. The city worker still goes out to watch a soccer game, catch a fish, or attend a parade, and still has a life of responsiveness, restricted it is true but one that may stretch to taking part in the activities of a club. If we exclude the vital cycle, activities involving direct response are increasingly confined to adolescence and the pre-conjugal period, when direct participation is necessary to collective survival. Until we get to the stage already reached by the species of domestic animals that are best suited to productivity—the stage of artificial insemination—it would, for the time being, seem that a modicum of social aesthetics will continue to surround our years of social maturing.”

I am less interested in his remarks about the uneven development of cultural experience, despite the fact that is seems to be true, than I am in his allusion to a general theory of adolescence. As much of life becomes administered, subject to rules and structures, adolescence remains the last remnant of “activities involving direct response.” This is in part due to the vital cycle, to sexuality as a necessary component of human existence, but it is also due to the undetermined nature of identity (Leroi-Gourham makes a reference to adolescence and insect larvae.) In Leroi-Gourhan’s world-view, which mourns the loss of “ethnic” belonging, in the name of some mega-ethnic global culture, high school cliques are perhaps all that remains of transindividual culture, of groups that can be influenced as much as they influence one. One can always transform one’s clique by coining  a phrase, inventing a look,  or be the one who introduces an important aspect of music or literature. There are the last collective that we both constitute and are constituted by, everything that comes after, the school, the factory, the company, the army, etc., is less open to our interventions. I am not sure that I totally agree with all of this, but it does offer an interesting take on why we return to teen dramas again and again. They offer us a moment when we acted with drama and determination.

If you put these two remarks together, however, the derivative nature of modern culture and the endless appeal of adolescence, you get the endless remakes of High School dramas and John Hughes knock offs. Perhaps Leroi-Gourhan predicted the future better than I first thought.


Jason Smith said...

Another hypothesis concerning the future made by Leroi-Gourhan:

"a toothless humanity who would exist lying down using what limbs it had left to push buttons with, is not entirely inconceivable."

The passage is cited in the third chapter of Derrida's Of Grammatology ("On Grammatology as a Positive Science"), and is no doubt the original point of reference for Stiegler. It's possible that the Stiegler of Time and Technics is a kind of working out of some of the implications nesting in these few pages on Leroi-Gourhan, pages otherwise completely neglected in the "literature" on JD.

Great post, as always.
--Jason Smith

unemployed negativity said...


Yes, you are right about that remark being neglected. One of the things I like about Stiegler is that his somewhat eclectic mix of Derrida, Deleuze, Marx, Simondon, Freud, Leroi-Gourhan, Husserl, and Heidegger exposes forgotten elements in its odd juxtapositions.