The Myth of Self-Discovery, Self-Improvement and Self-Expression: Finger Painting, Auto-Mutilation, and the Birth of the Signature

Claude Levi-Strauss was well known as a cultural structuralist anthropologist. But what about physical structuralist anthropology? That was a field of research explored and expanded by Andre Leroi-Gourhan, an anthropologist held in very high esteem in France, though his name is seldom mentioned in America. Anyone who chooses to become more familiar with the writings of Jacques Derrida will one day need to read his very famous study devoted to possibility of the science of writing, the landmark Of Grammatology. The two names which always come up in discussions of Derrida’s magnum opus are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Claude Levi-Strauss.

But the last time I read through Of Grammatology I could not help but notice the frequent references to Leroi-Gourhan’s important book Gesture and Speech, a study which in great detail outlines the developmental morphogenesis of the human brain and hand (natural selection is only one part of the big picture), the correspondence between faciality and corticality (big mouth equals small brain), and the structural relationship between upright posture and the capacity for language (dogs and horses will never talk). The effect of all of this is to indicate that the emergence of writing has a much longer, and far more complex history than most people realize.

Gargas Cave, Southern France
Evidence of Prehistoric Hand Mutilation?
The Debate Continues
(N.B. I distrust the conservative thesis of the book behind the link.)

So, why don’t we hear about this kind of thing more in English departments in America? An easier question might be this, Why don’t people who read Derrida notice and mention Leroi-Gourhan? Because we are trained, if only implicitly, to ignore footnotes, because they don’t really matter. Footnotes just qualify and confuse any quick and commonsense reading of the text. Whereas Derrida, and an entire generation of writers whom he taught to read and write, dedicate lengthy studies to the careful investigation of how a single emendation, a mere snippet, can “alter” the significance of an entire book.

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4 Responses to The Myth of Self-Discovery, Self-Improvement and Self-Expression: Finger Painting, Auto-Mutilation, and the Birth of the Signature

  1. brian
    there is also evidence for mutilating the hand by cutting off a finger as a response to the deaths of a family member, and so a form of ancestral worship. see edmund carpenter’s patterns that connect:

  2. Sérgio Mota says:

    Hey, could you please supply a new link for the article “The Hands of Gargas: Towards a General Interpretation” ?

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