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André Leroi-Gourhan: Neuroaesthetics?


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005 Cultured Brain Section

Techno-cultural Neuroaesthetics, Thanks John, thank you for teleporting us through the work of Stanley Kubrick and also Gram Gusson, and for pairing our teleportation with several French authors, Prince Leroi-Gourhan, Stiegler, Blanchot, and Lyotard. And I’m sorry your bandy on Nietzsche at the end there, because I enjoyed previously being prompted to think of our Zarathustran potential to give birth to dancing stars. I’m here today on the basis on my background, way back when, in experimental psychology, with my recent work here at Goldsmiths on Andre Leroi-Gourhan, the paleo-anthropologist that Charlie [Gere] started out with. I was introduced to Leroi-Gourhan’s writing by Howard, and I’ve been investigating his methodology in order to ground my own, in order to develop a practice that might slide in under the banner of Neuroaesthetics. In asking me to prepare a short something for today, Warren was anxious to warn me off from using artists of illustration. He was reminding me, I think, that he was an artist, and he knew that I had been a curator. And so, partly just as a repast, I want to start with an image I borrowed not from an artist but from Richard Gregory, Emeritus Professor of neuropsychology at Bristol University.

[shows slide]

We might choose to think of Richard Gregory as a neuroaesthetician of illusions and puns, however his intention with this image, however joking, is pure illustration, and I’m using it to make my own rather different point. Here is some art. Not illustration, but provocation, and I’d like to pick up not on the point of the cave bears we saw yesterday morning in fact, but on Joseph Kosuth’s paper, last night, and in particular on his description of art as a test, which I take to mean as a posing of questions. Leroi-Gourhan spent much of his career considering this sort of art. Studying the marks made on cave walls by Paleolithic people, not only the animal imagery, but also the more geometric and abstract marks, and the blue-painted hand stencils that you can see here. And this is a close-up of those handprints created with pigment and spattered across a hand held up against a rock face. Leroi-Gourhan’s writing draws on extensive fieldwork and the cognitive neuroscience of his time. He grounds his anthropological research and his philosophical probing of cave art through an engagement with contemporary cortical anatomy, cognitive psychology, and linguistics.  What I’d like to suggest in response to the paper we’ve just heard, is that rather than turning to Lyotard’s split-persona, we could also flex Leroi-Gourhan’s own writing, its scientific grounding and its artistic ridge, in order to recover his thinking from some of Stiegler’s criticisms, in order to connect with the astral becoming of Blanchot.

[shows slide]

This is a work by Jasper Johns from 1962 called “Study for Skin” and capturing an impression of his face and hands.

In one of his last major publications of 1981, Leroi-Gourhan gives succinct form to a guiding principal of his research. “Works of art are the only evidence which can enlighten us to certain fundamental aspects of the mental behavior of Paleolithic humans.” The crucial expression in this statement for me is “mental behavior,” which nimbly does the work of collapsing that internal/external distinction, which indeed crops up elsewhere in Leroi-Gourhan’s writing and which Stiegler rightly rails against. The term “mental behavior” dissolves any dissociation with the physical act, those taking place out there at large in the world from thinking or feeling, those acts that happen only in your mind or in my mind. What’s most important for my purposes today is that the term advances the possibility that art enacts or realizes thought at the same time that thinking enacts or realizes art, which may be akin to saying that the world builds brains at the same time that brains build worlds. In his paper, Johnny focused mostly on the emergence of technical consciousness, on humans inventing themselves and on the invention of the tool of language, but we’re talking about all human species here and thus, what we share of Neanderthals.

I want to shift our focus to the emergence of Homo sapiens, and the advent of what Leroi-Gourhan calls “creative consciousness”. This is fraught territory, and it’s fraught for Stiegler because he believes that Leroi-Gourhan attributes the beginning of our species in creative consciousness to the brain, to the development of the frontal cortex, but I’m not convinced that Leroi-Gourhan gives the brain determining this role. To return to the quote I’ve just given, his ambitions to establish fundamentals, in the plural, in line with his Structuralist leanings, much of Leroi-Gourhan’s discussion as noted by Stiegler, relies closely on binary opposition, and, unlike Stiegler, he doesn’t attempt to name one fundamental, any single third-term that preempts the separation into two. In fact I would argue he prefers to keep three terms simultaneously in play, the brain and consciousness, and also crucially, art. By reading Leroi-Gourhan with Stiegler, we are in danger of losing sight of art. I want to suggest that what Leroi-Gourhan finds to be fundamental is a fully reciprocal causality between our brains, art, and consciousness, and in this three-way relationship, no one term lies at the root of the others, nor is a single causal operator outside them identified. The three terms are mutually defining, an historic event of them mutually contingent emerges.

[shows slide]

This is Bruce Nauman’s famous photograph of him spitting, “Self-Portrait As A Fountain,” 1966-67.

From “mental behavior,” I want to move on to another related phrase of Leroi-Gourhan’s phrases that is crucial for me– the “substrate of metaphysical thinking.” To be honest, I also want to part company with Leroi-Gourhan at this point, to reject his specific proposal for what this substrate might be, to reject the mental construct that he invents. However, I want to stick with the phrase, and to apply it to the neurology of brain functioning, as it is now generally understood. And maybe, also in doing this, pick up on Marcus Novak’s concept of “liquid architecture.”  But first I want to say a quick something about the problems of not reading Leroi-Gourhan in French. The English translations that we’ve got have either been made speedily, intended perhaps for the general audience and not for the academic nit-picker I find I’ve become, or they bear the mark of English-speaking structuralism. Now Leroi-Gourhan, as a man of his moment in Paris, and as I’ve already mentioned, is undoubtedly in many ways a Structuralist, and to talk in ways of intellectual history and visual theory, and I mean this specifically Structuralist with a capital S, and speaking in terms of psychology, I mean this generally. He adopts a Cognitivist line, positing levels of processing, a schema, and operation sequences. However, I think that what’s important about his writing is it’s also open to more contemporary and neurobiological inflections, to the potential for plasticity within structure. So, let’s go back to the expression that prompted this aside, the substrates of metaphysical thinking. Here, I’m rejecting a translator’s choice of “substratum,” rejecting the brittle underlying fixedness this suggests, and raise the dynamic possibility of active growth which “substrate” arguably implies, instead. There are similar issues at stake with a French word, “cadre” which Leroi-Gourhan uses ostensibly in order, like substrate, to ground his ideas around the human faculty for and tendency towards metaphysical thinking. Cadre means frame, as well as framework, so outer limits as well as core-structure. It can also mean scaffolding or skeleton as well as décor and surround, milieu and setting. All of this might make the word seem too vague to be meaningful, but I think it comes into its own when mapped into something very specifically tangible, onto the neural hardwiring that …that is, the neural hardwiring that we share with those responsible for this [shows slide] and this [shows slide]. In these terms, cadre means conditions of possibility, both scientifically and philosophically, which I say with some trepidation being neither a scientist nor a philosopher, with no hope of drawing these two camps into discussion. Cadre also means, as in English, a crack-core of revolutionary activists that will expand and multiply at the critical moment, and the event status of a critical moment is important here. We have heard Blanchot described as foreseeing a new era in which the human becomes astral, in which the categorical oppositions nature-culture, space-time fall away and history is exceeded. But couldn’t we also find the potential for becoming astral in the present, in the art-making moment, and moreover in the past, in the history that dates back to this sort of era?

Clearly, we cannot know the specific circumstances in which this type of art was created, however, developed discussions increasingly focus around sensory deprivation, drug taking, and shamanic activity, and I agree incidentally with what Andrew Patrizio said yesterday about the disservice these debates had been done by the current BBC tv services. Now, Shamanism, even in the absence of confined or cavernous darkness, even without hallucinogenic drugs can induce states of altered or heightened consciousness that strike me as about as astral is as currently conceivable. Some art, some of the very oldest as was discussed by Leroi-Gourhan and some that’s recent seems to address more eloquently than anything else that we’ve come up with, many of the very paradoxes that Stiegler identifies. Art-making can be both a creative assertion of mastery, of overall corrupt control, and simultaneously, a surrender to an outside, to an audience. Or, to condense and paraphrase Diedrich Diederichsen on jazz music after or in spite of Adorno, “Art-making may be thought of both as liberation through combat and as release from combat,” which I think brings us back to consciousness and Leroi-Gourhan. To consciousness as both emerging from and as emergence, departure from, the brain in the event of art-making. And I should probably point out, belatedly, that I’ve not intended to privilege art over science, here. In the terms I’ve set out, I consider scientific insight to be an art-making moment. But to end with a return to Charlie’s space odyssey, I want to pick up on a description we’ve been given of Kubrick’s monolith as a black box. As Daniel Glaser mentioned yesterday, a related concept made it into psychology about the time that Leroi-Gourhan was writing. So-called “Broca’s Area” models of brain functioning became hotly disputed by Cognitivists who sketched out short-term memory boxes shown feeding into bigger boxes labeled for long-term storage. However, certain specific meaning in the original, technological context was lost in the translation, whereas engineers fixed their boxes around inner processes that they understood but didn’t need to detail. Psychologists soon found that their boxes served mostly to obscure grey areas in understanding, to distract from the nature of neurophysiological processing. Which is not to say that psychology has since found the answer in neurophysiology, but to apply the metaphor fresh, we might see a black box as filling the expandatory gap that scientists come up against between consciousness and the brain. We might find a black box standing in for philosophical aporia. Perhaps this is what Kubrick wanted for his monolith, of which I’m not up on the vast literature but I’m sure it discusses this, but I’m also wary of reducing an image to words, to say black box, expandatory gap, or an aporia. I’m wary that we thereby force an image to illustrate, to tidy away our thinking rather than to allow it to question. I want to leave us where Leroi-Gourhan begins, with art, and to find there, provocation.

Lucy Steeds is a part-time PhD candidate based at Goldsmiths and taking a cross-disciplinary approach to creative, ecstatic consciousness, led by visual art to explore new perspectives. She draws on an academic background in experimental psychology, art history and philosophy, and simultaneously upon her professional expertise in the exhibition and discussion of contemporary art. After publishing research on the role of language in the development of Theory Mind, she spent six years in the exhibitions team at Arnolfini, the centre for contemporary arts in Bristol. There she co-curated shows including ‘Apparition: The Action of Appearing,’ wrote numerous catalogue essays and co-edited the first UK monograph on the work of Michael Snow. She continues to contribute to the art press (e.g. on Tino Sehgal for Art Monthly) and to gallery-based public symposia and events (e.g. on Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern).