Week 7 – The Invention of the Human (pt. 2)

This week we spent most of our time trying to rearticulate the text as best we could. This is more or less how far we got.

Leroi-Gourhan gets us quite far with his account of hominization through tool-use; but only so far. There is a gap between homo faber and homo sapiens in Leroi-Gourhan which the anthropologist is not able to surmount. When he criticises Rousseau for thinking the distinctly human element of the human (i.e. human spirit, intelligence, etc) as a mere spiritual supplement to the animal ‘state of nature’, the former is unable to show how he is not also guilty of this binarism; he cannot adequately demonstrate a valid passage from the tool-making animal to the intelligent human.

Leroi-Gourhan’s narrative is one of an increasing complexity in the ‘sequence of operations’ of the construction of a tool (e.g. from the use of a rock to smash open a nut, to sharpening that rock with another rock, and finding ways of doing so more effectively, etc, etc), which constitutes different layers of anticipation and of memory. We move from survival-instinct (fight-or-flight mechanism) to reflection (upon what makes a good tool, how it might be used in the future, how it might be improved, how one goes about achieving this with efficiency, and so on); in other words, the human’s relation to the world changes from purely concrete (i.e. animal, determined by genetic programming) to one which incorporates increasing levels of abstraction (i.e. memory and foresight). It slowly emerges into the symbolic domain, acquiring the capacity for language, step by step (and, as Kittler notes, the world of the symbolic is, for Lacan, the world of the machine).

Stiegler points out that how this cannot be so by focusing on language. There can be no wholly concrete language (as Leroi-Gourhan suggests) – there is no way in which each object in the world (or rather, each phenomenological experience) can be attached to a different vocal signifier as this would be meaningless, there could be no possibility of communication (this is basic Saussure: all language is a system of relations, is a kind of differance). All words are, by necessity, already generalisations, or they are not linguistic. One does not emerge into the symbolic in stages; rather the subject and object construct each other in the same gesture.

Stiegler criticises Leroi-Gourhan for a kind of crude materialism that obfuscates his own reasoning. The enlargement of the brain (especially the pre-frontal cortex), motivated by the capacity for tool-use derived from the upright skeleton, drives the acquisition of language and constitutes the origin of the human – but this, for Stiegler, ‘explains nothing’, it is mere description (Rousseau understood this at least). In reality, he says, the brain and technical equipment exist as a structural coupling that de-/re-/co-form each other; a kind of mirror (proto)-stage, whereby consciousness is drawn out as a latent possibility, at the same time that tools develop as an always-possible extension of nature – this is what he calls an ‘instrumental maieutics’, which seems to have much in common with Heidegger’s Gestell; as a revealing of that which was already possible.

For Leroi-Gourhan, the human, having developed technics, is further along a continuum of evolutionary development than the animal; they are different manifestations of the same natural progression. For Stiegler, the human is both animal and technical at the same time as being not (merely) either. This last distinction is important: the human is a technical animal but technicity is not a supplement, it is not ‘added’ to the animal to free it from determination (this would be a restatement of Rousseau). The animal base (as instinct/genetic memory) is absolutely fundamental. Stiegler seems to speak of the human qua animal and of consciousness qua technics. It is only once we establish this that the possibility of agency that is necessary in constituting a human emerges (even as a micro-possibility).

So we end up with three types of memory: genetic (the code of genetic replication that is embodied in psycho-somatic action); epigenetic (lived human memory); and epiphylogenetic (technical exteriorisation). Later in his thought (beginning, I think, in volume two), this will be related (via Husserl) to primary, secondary, and tertiary retention – as immediate, recalled, and stored phenomenological experience. My genetic memory is what gives me two arms and two legs and makes me recoil when faced with danger; it replicates itself across a species. My epigenetic memory gives me a capacity for Russian, or ballroom dancing, is acquired through education and experience, and expires with the human individual; epiphylogenetic memory enables me to store my knowledge of these capacities, in order to compare with others and contribute to their education, even after I am gone. I think we also see here the beginnings of an understanding of ‘general organology’ of individuation (as per Disbelief and Discredit). For Leroi-Gourhan, this process seems to be a linear, telic movement – Stiegler urges us to think them together, in different combinations, with different emphases, but all at once.

A deliberately provocative question: how much of this argument is present in Dawkins’ meme theory? Stiegler deliberately evokes an understanding of technics coupled to biological evolution and Dawkins effectively explores ways in which evolution can continue (in Stiegler’s phrase) ‘by means other than life’, as the proliferation of epiphylogenetics (The Selfish Gene is the classic text but see also The Extended Phenotype on the extension of genetic selection to the domains of species and environment). The professional atheist’s unabashed positivism might be seen as a more extreme, and more typically arrogant, Anglo-empiricist brand of Leroi-Gourhan, and therefore subject to the same criticisms, but I’m not sure that there isn’t a more sympathetic reading to be had – particularly when a bit of Wikipedia-surfing leads to ideas in evolutionary biology like ‘dual inheritance theory’…

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