Hands full with Leroi-Gourhan

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After completing Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech, I admit that I do not know where to begin with all fascinating archeological, technological, and sociolinguistic information he presented.  Therefore, I’ve decided to break this post up into small, bite-sized chunks to discuss what I find most applicable to my research that I have taken from this text.

Extending the body with the development of hands

What I immediately find most fascinating in Leroi-Gourhan’s work is his early argument that Homo sapiens’ hands developed as aides in speech, rather than as tools with which to eat.  By quoting the Treatise on the Creation of Man, Leroi-Gourhan argues that, “Yet it is above all for the sake of speech that nature has added hands to our body.  If man had been deprived of hands, his facial parts, like those of the quadrupeds, would have been fashioned to enable him to feed himself” (35).  After reading Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals a few years back, I would never have made this connection, as it is my understanding that Darwin instead argues that our faces and the expressions on them become the vessels of speech.  The similar, sometimes even identical, affective responses amongst all mammals indicate that our hands are not the sources for speech or expression, but rather our faces.  As a hardcore Darwinian, I have a difficult time straying away from his argument in Expression to believe Leroi-Gourhan’s argument in this week’s text.  However, after I continued reading Gesture and Speech I found myself more convinced with his argument that the development of hands is not limited to speech, but is indicative of technological advances to expand the body.   To speak and function by utilizing various extensions of our bodies is precisely his argument when discussing the development of the hands.

Extending the brain with the development of exteriorization

Today, we are dramatically externalized, so much so that our physical memories are under worked and reliant upon outside sources.  However, Leroi-Grourhan views externalization as a “logical stage of evolution,” as noted in the following:

“These machines […] reflect a logical stage in human evolution.  As with hand
tools the process whereby all implements came gradually to be concentrated outside the human body is again perfectly clear: Actions of the teeth shift to the hand, which handles the portable tool; then the tool shifts still further away, and a part of the gesture is transferred from the arm to the hand-operated machine” (245).

By looking at Leroi-Gourhan’s argument for extending our bodies, it appears that technologies have always encouraged the expanding of the brain in one fashion or another (his hand stand – ark ark ark – clearly illustrates the desire to expand the body).  Currently, we are experiencing the ability to “store” our brains: “evolution has entered a new stage, that of the exteriorization of the brain, and from a strictly technological point of view the mutation has already been achieved” (252).  Compared to the reformation of the skull to hold our physical brains, this mutation of which he speaks occurred rather immediately.  Consequently, we are externalizing the self with more frequency and relying upon a stored, technologized memory.  It should be noted that while Leroi-Gourhan refers to encyclopedias and punch-card indexes, he was indeed able to see where externalization is heading.

One might argue that with the prevalence of externalized memory, a collective memory is replacing our individual memory.  However, I believe that it is the reverse that is occurring: because a collective memory is no longer necessary, our memory is strictly individualized. Real memory of specific, collective, survival behaviors that were passed on through a group are no longer necessary for the species to endure.  We simply store the information that we need and seek out only what we deem important.  Perhaps, then, the next step in externalized evolution is maintaining a certain technical savvy-ness—if one does not have the means (economic, knowledge or otherwise) to externalize, you will not evolve.

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