Toward an Anthropology of Automation: Leroi-Gourhan and the “Elementary Forms of Action on Matter” at the Musée de l’Homme

In the archives of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, I found an advertisement torn from a magazine in the late 1950s or early 1960s promoting a new electric slide projector. “Open your eyes wide,” it says, and “don’t make a single move. It’s ENTIRELY AUTOMATIC.” A well-coiffed, contented, schematically drawn face hovers over a pair of hands, their fingers snugly entwined. The thumbs twiddle idly; they have nothing to do.

From Collection “Salle des Arts et Techniques,” folder “Corps Humain.” Archives of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac

While there is no comment on the page, the folder in which it’s contained—”Corps Humain” in the collection, “Salle des Arts et Techniques”—makes clear that this advertisement was not saved by accident. It comments obliquely on the philosophy behind the exhibit the folder documents, the Hall of Arts and Techniques (or Technology), opened in 1959. Guided by anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986), the Hall of Arts and Techniques was the centerpiece of the Musée de l’Homme, first planned in 1937 and finally opened after the long delays imposed by World War II. The museum, spectacularly perched on the Place de Trocadéro overlooking the Eiffel Tower, has a small but dynamic scholarly industry devoted to its history; its many twists reveal changing attitudes towards race, colonialism, art, humanity, and non-Western thought across the twentieth century.[1] The Hall of Arts and Techniques hinted at significant changes facing industrial humanity due to the rise of automatic, push-button technology.

Leroi-Gourhan was part of the generation of Marcel Mauss’s students who defined mid-twentieth century French anthropology. He took over responsibility for the hall’s planning from Anatole Lewitsky, an expert on Siberian shamanism who was executed during World War II for his Resistance activities, including using the museum’s press for subversive communiqués. Leroi-Gourhan spent part of the war on a cultural mission to Japan where he collected objects and documented craft traditions. According to Nathan Schlanger, this may also be where he first seriously read the work of philosopher Henri Bergson.[2]

Leroi-Gourhan transformed Bergson’s vitalist theory of “creative evolution” into an anthropology of technology focused on gesture. His approach shifted attention away from objects toward the physical actions they embodied and enhanced. He saw technical objects as realizing certain “tendencies,” externalizing gestures previously performed by the body alone: the knife externalizes the chopping of teeth and claws, the stone externalizes the pounding of the fist. Following diverse and branching evolutionary pathways, technical objects express the élan vital coursing through living things, adjusting them to their external milieus.[3] Leroi-Gourhan also showed complex technologies as the product of “operational chains” which wove together a number of smaller gestures: the axe binds the chopping action of a stone blade to the thrashing gesture of a stick just as the actions of carving and hammering join “posing” with “thrusting.”[4]

Display from Musée de l’Homme, from Vitrine: Les outils, photo by author, 1999.

The glass cases and descriptive posters in the Hall of Arts and Techniques, designed by a team led by Hélène Balfet, an ethnographer interested in basket weaving, were dedicated to ways of harnessing the energies of the human body as well as air, water, and fire; they detailed forms of hunting and capture, textiles and building, music and other arts, including an impressive collection of Gamelan instruments. Although the displays included “technical objects” from around the world, they placed their emphasis on the embodied gestures at the root of all technologies. These were made present by photos and by loose outlines drawn to suggest ghost-like human figures performing these acts. Leroi-Gourhan might not have openly embraced what James Clifford called the “ethnographic surrealism” of other anthropologists associated with the Musée de l’Homme, but these displays resonated with the museological ideals of Marcel Griaule and André Schaeffner; they invited visitors to enter empathically into the physical activities and cultural contexts implied by technical objects.[5]

Leroi-Gourhan summarized his views in the two volumes of Gesture and Speech (1963-4), concluding with prophetic reflections on the shift to electric and electronic devices and automation. The Musée’s display dedicated to “The Human Body” had observed that “industrial motive forces tend to eliminate completely the action of the body as a motive force and automatic machines even lead, to a large extent, to the disappearance of the differentiated operations of the hand.” Gesture and Speech went further, presenting automation as a threat to humanity. From its origins, Homo sapiens had transferred evolution from the human body to the “curtain” of technical objects which surround it, defining culturally and historically specific “sociotechnical milieus.” Automation introduces a temporal lag between human bodies and this extended exoskeleton. “Every rise of civilizations has been done by the same physical and intellectual man who lay in wait for the mammoth,” he argued; thus “our electronic culture, barely fifty years old, has for its support a physiological equipment which is forty thousand years old.” A new threshold was crossed when memory and thought were handed over to machines, in what he described as the “the exteriorization of the brain.”[6]

As a result, he surmised that the “homo sapiens of zoology is probably near the end of his career” as well as “on the verge of exhausting the planet.” He imagined an approaching society directed by “master illusionists whose role will be to study the psycho-physical diet of human masses” (data analytics) where forced activity in “recreation zones” (gyms) would balance “sedentary productivity” (working from home), all “supported by the vitamin element of tele-diffused emissions” ([7] The seemingly friendly and innocuous automatic slide projector in the advertisement, requiring “no gesture” of its users beyond the pushing of a button, was a portent of humanity’s upcoming fall into an enfeebled state akin to that of the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine.  

The Musée de l’Homme’s displays were dismantled in the early 2000s for a redesign; the Hall of Arts and Technique’s objects have been transferred to the Musée du quai Branly, while its displays now exist only in the (electronic) archive.[8] Yet Leroi-Gourhan’s reflections on the bodily basis of all technologies, and his anxieties about the alien disruptions brought by automatic, push-button (or keypad) technologies are even more relevant now.[9] The increased automation and externalization of both physical and mental capacities place transformative pressure on earlier distributions of labor, agency, wealth, and knowledge; they pose new challenges to anthropologists as they redefine society, work, nature, and humanity itself.[10]

I’ve written a longer article introducing Leroi-Gourhan’s anthropology of technology through his museology, emphasizing his continuities and differences with contemporaries (especially the pugnacious Georges Bataille) setting the Hall of Arts and Techniques among the clashing visions of energy, humanity, and progress in Paris’s International Exposition of 1937 and the later century. It’s in Douglas Kahn, ed., Energies in the Arts (Cambridge: MIT, 2019), with the unfinalized preprint available here.

[1] See for instance Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Claude Blanckaert and Yves Coppens, eds., Le Musée de l’Homme: histoire d’un musée laboratoire (Paris: Editions Artlys, 2015); Benoit de L’Estoile, Le Goût des Autres: De l’Exposition coloniale aux arts premiers (Paris: Flammarion, 2007); Nélia Dias, Le musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro (1878–1908): Anthropologie et muséologie en France (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1991) ; Jean Jamin, “Un sacré collège ou les apprentis sorciers de la sociologie,” Cahiers internationaux de sociologie (1980): 5–30.

[2] Nathan Schlanger, personal communication; see Schlanger, “‘Suivre les gestes, éclat par éclat’: la chaîne opératoire d’André Leroi-Gourhan,” in Schlanger, ed., Autour de l’ homme: Contexte et actualite d’André Leroi-Gourhan (Paris: Editions APDCA, 2004), 2–25 ; Noël Barbe and Jean-François Bert, Penser le concret: André-Leroi-Gourhan, André-Georges Haudricourt, Charles Parain (Paris: Créaphis, 2011).

[3] André Leroi-Gourhan, Evolution et techniques I: L’homme et la matiere (Paris: Albin Michel, 1943), 27, 15.

[4] Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 114.

[5] James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 4 (1981): 539–564; Denis Hollier and Liesl Ollman, “The Use-Value of the Impossible,” October 60 (1992): 3-24.

[6] André Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la Parole, tome I: Technique et Langage, tome II: La Mémoire et les Rhythmes (Paris: Albin Michel, 1963, 1964), t.II, p.58.

[7] ibid., 265-67.

[8] Nathan Schlanger, “Back in Business: History and Evolution at the New Musée de l’Homme,”Antiquity 90, no. 352 (2016): 1090–1099; Nélia Dias, “Le musée du quai Branly: une généalogie,” Le débat 5 (2007): 65–79.

[9] Leroi-Gourhan was a source of reflection for Deleuze and Derrida. Subsequent works in philosophy of technology have drawn heavily on his work, including Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time: The Fault of Epimetheus, vol. 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), Tim Ingold, “‘Tools for the Hand, Language for the Face’: An Appreciation of Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech,” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C, 30, no. 4 (1999): 411–453, and Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019). Leroi-Gourhan’s notion of technology as overcoming the division between individual body and environment has drawn comparison with Latour’s Actor Network Theory and the recently translated The Mode of Existence of Technical Objects by Gilbert Simondon (trans. Cecile Malaspina, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017; see the recent special issue in Culture, Theory, and Critique edited by Conor Heaney, “Culture & Technics: The Politics of Simondon’s Du Mode,” vol 60, no. 3-4 (2019)).  

[10] See, for example, Joffrey Becker, “Chimeric Recursion: From the Anthropomorphism of Autonomous Robots to the Ambiguity of Images of the Human Body,” Gradhiva, vol. 13, no. 1 (2011): 112-129; Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, eds., Life by Algorithms: How Roboprocesses are Remaking Our World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019); Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, eds., Digital Anthropology (Routledge, 2020); Stefan Helmreich, Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2000); Paul Kockelman, “The Anthropology of an Equation: Sieves, Spam Filters, Agentive Algorithms, and Ontologies of Transformation,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, no. 3 (2013): 33-61; Nick Seaver, “Algorithms as Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems,” Big Data & Society 4, no. 2 (2017).

John Tresch: contributions / website / / Warburg Institute, University of London

1 Comment

  1. Thank you, John, for this tantalizing introduction to L-G and his exhibit. I have been concerned, in teaching introductory anthropology via Zoom, to explain to my students in some detail ideas about “mediation,” to point out that the “live lecture,” pre-Zoom, is not at all unmediated. I hadn’t thought of tools and gadgets as mediating devices, but of course they are, as L-G’s metaphor of the “curtain” makes us realize.

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