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This review appeared in Volume 5 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The tools of grammatology

by Charles Lock

Gesture and Speech, by Andre Leroi-Gourhan, translated by Anna Bostock Berger, introduction by Randall White. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993. xxii,431 pp. ISBN 0-262-12173-5.

The use to which Derrida puts Leroi-Gourhan, in the third chapter of 'Writing before the Letter', is drastic, and so clamant that Leroi-Gourhan's scholarly reputation is still lagging behind. As a palaeontologist and as an interpreter of prehistoric art, Leroi-Gourhan tends to be regarded as, at best, a structuralist, and more often as a structuralist sullied by archetypalism, with a notable weakness for explanation in terms of sexual symbolism. This is misleading and unfair on many counts, and is probably the result of Leroi-Gourhan's vast range of publications, on aspects of ethnology and archaeology in Chinese, Egyptian, Siberian and North Pacific cultures, as well as on evolutionary problems in animals and hominids, in the field he named palaeoethnology; his name pays the penalty for being that of the author of the crudely titled (only in translation, and until now one of the very few of his monographs in English translation) Treasures of Prehistoric Art. The relative neglect of Leroi-Gourhan contrasts with the celebrity of his erstwhile colleague at the Musée de l'homme, Levi-Strauss, the unimpeachably pure structuralist. It is a contrast that Derrida, in both De la grammatologie and L'écriture et la difference aimed to redress, by his sharp critique of Levi-Strauss, and by acknowledgement of his debt to Leroi-Gourhan.

Leroi-Gourhan's achievements ought now to stand out in relief from the romantic exoticism of Levi-Strauss; was it really not some nineteenth century orientalist who wrote travelogues entitled La Pensée Sauvage and Tristes Tropiques? Leroi Gourhan's achievements in the study of the prehistoric can be stated baldly, he eschewed the term 'art' and attempt to restrict discussion to 'representation'. And, after some wanderings in the footsteps of his predecessor, the Abbe Breuil, Leroi-Gournan gave up the attempt to Interpret prehistoric representations, and concerned himself primarily, if not solely, with the material and mechanical aspects of sign-making. In both of these moves he was greatly influenced by the most intellectually sophisticated of all the early students of cave-painting, Max Raphael.

Le geste et la parole was first published in 1965. Now for the first time translated, Gesture and Speech is introduced by the American anthropologist Randall White, who sympathetically explains developments over the past thirty years which would modify or even invalidate some of Leroi-Gourhan's findings and reasonings.

Two of these "developments" deserve a certain scrutiny. White ventures an objection to "Leroi Gourhan's position that the earliest graphism took abstract or rhythmic forms. He paid no attention to the remarkable animal sculptures in ivory from south German sites that are as old as, or even older than, the Cha telperronian objects from Arcysur-Cure." (xxi). This seems to be a misunderstanding of one of Leroi-Gourhan's fundamental arguments, that graphism is not exclusively figuration - but that figuration does not necessarily precede graphism (see Gesture and Speech, 187-92). In conventional scholarship, the simplicity of graphism has been assumed to occur later than the complexity of figuration. Leroi Gourhan wanted to undo that evolutionary model, and now finds himself accused of naively supposing that simple graphic signs precede complex graphic (figurative) signs.

"Second", White proffers his next reservation:

if in 1964 Homo sapiens sapiens was still viewed as emerging about 35,000 years ago ... this is no longer the case. Fossil remains of the oldest known anatomically modern humans are to be found in Africa and are dated to about 100,000 years ago. Nevertheless, there is virtually no evidence prior to 40,000 years ago for graphic representation. Thus there is an emerging scholarly consensus that the first graphic representation, personal ornaments. and so on. do not directly coincide with the biological emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens. (xxi).

This also obscures what is actually Leroi Gourhan's point: that no definition of 'man' can be postulated on the achievement of writing or figuration, any more than it can be on 'anatomical' of biological' criteria. White is still trapped in the distinction between nature (anatomy, biology) and culture (writing, figuration) that Leroi-Gourhan so carefully dissolved by his little, Gesture and Speech, and by his insistence that the mouth could not speak if the hand were not developed as data a tool of grasping to take over some of the tasks formerly performed by the mouth.

The first and longest part of Gesture and Speech, 'Technics and Language' is concerned with the mechanics of whatever is most human, the biological base of the cultural and above and below all, with the material and technical constituents of consciousness. The definition Homo sapiens sapiens here offered is that animal which specializes in externalising what it learns, instead of internalizing it in the service of biological adaptation representation as substitute for adaptation Leroi-Gourhan specifically excludes size of brain as a defining characteristic, in order to see the greater importance of the interdependence of hand and face. And as we externalize what we learn, so our brain becomes increasingly empty - Aristotle's tabula rasa is indeed an evolutionary achievement of erasure (see 228). With Gallic insouciance our author shrugs 'The tradition that holds the human brain responsible for human achievements is a very old one (265). As the hand becomes more accomplished, so the brain is emptied, for the purpose of thinking, and the face is increasingly dedicated to the expression of what is thought.

The source of this insight is cited as the epigraph to I, 2, 'Brain and Hand' which chapter begins 'There is little we can add to this quotation except perhaps by commenting in the language of the twentieth century upon what was already evident sixteen hundred year ago.' The epigraph reads:

So it was thanks to the manner in which outer bodies are organized that our mind, like a musician, struck the note of language within us and we became capable of speech This privilege would surely never have been ours if our lips had been required to perform the onerous and difficult task of procuring nourishment for our bodies But our hands took over that task, releasing our mouths for the service of speech (25).

The improbable author is St. Gregory of Nyssa, who died ca. 395, and the passage is from his treatise on The Creation of Man, of 379 An even more astonishing passage from the same treatise is cited further on:

Yet it is above all for the sake of speech that nature has added hands to our body. If man has been deprived of hands, his facial parts, like those of the quadrupeds, would have been fashioned to enable him to feed himself.... If our body had no hands, how could the articulated voice form inside it? The parts around the mouth would not be so constituted as to meet the requirements of speech. (35)

This extraordinary insight enables Leroi-Gourhan to understand the significance of Leakey's find, in 1959, of Zinjanthropus boisei accompanied by tools. The articulation of the hand enabled tools to be made, even before speech had developed. Therefore Leroi-Gourhan can say that 'the development of the human body had been completed by the end of the Tertiary period of the Cenozoic era, even if the development of the human mind had barely begun.' (89) This, like too much in Leroi-Gourhan, is regrettably casual in its phrasing: what Leroi-Gourhan would insist on elsewhere, is that language and consciousness the 'human mind' - are effects of the body, and that there cannot be development of the one without the other. In the case of Zinjanthropus we find the capacity to make tools without evidence of the capacity to use those tools for representation at what point one would introduce the notions of 'mind' or intentionality' is moot, and ultimately irrelevant.

Tools, writes Leroi-Gourhan, are no more the "noble fruit of our thought' than would be claws: tools, he suggests, may have been 'gradually exuded' from the body. (106) However, it is only when tools exist that language can come into being. We might think of primitive people, 'prehominids', grunting, and that is all they could do, if their mouths still served the primary function of acquiring and preparing food; once the hand has taken over that function, then and only then can the mouth articulate language - as St. Gregory of Nyssa explained. And once the hand is free and capable, it is capable of making tools and, with those tools, of making representations: 'tools and language are neurologically linked." (114)

At once we must recall that language is not to be restricted to speech or to writing, but must include all graphic representations. Alphabetical writing is the last stage of a process of phonetic representation, whose realization in speech can be accomplished only in a single linear dimension:" "The invention of writing, through the device of linearity, completely subordinated graphic to phonetic representation... An image possesses a dimensional freedom which writing must always lack." (195)

Here we find the ground neatly cleared for Derrida's archiécriture, with its radical claim that writing is not the representation of speech, but that one cannot distinguish between speech and writing in their origins. That fantastic and controversial claim is based on sound palaeological reasoning, almost on positive empirical evidence. 'Phonocentrism' is Derrida's term for the belief (Plato's belief) that writing represents speech. When early Byzantine theologians had to explain Christianity they did so not in terms of Greek philosophy, but in opposition to it. As is well known, there was no more subtle and subversive modifier of Plato than St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, whose rejection of the realm of forms was grounded in the value of created matter.

Derrida then combines Leroi-Gourhan's lamentation at the "linearization of symbols" in writing and resulting "constriction of thought", with Jakobson's attack on Saussure's axiom that the semiotic chain is linear and one-dimensional. (On Grammatology, 83-93) The rest, as we say, is theory. But to read Leroi-Gourhan today, in the freshness of an excellent translation, is to understand that deconstruction is not based on a set of (anti)metaphysical conceits but, astonishingly, on the hard and stony evidence of a brilliant prehistorian or, better, palaeosemiotician.


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