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CulturePrintCritical dictionary

Mnemotechnique

Bernard Stiegler

Paleontology has been at the forefront of the most advanced theoretical thinking in France. This paleontological issue was raised again with the spectacular rise of mnemotechnologies induced by the development of digital networks and what has become known the internet of objects

Keywords: technique; writing; hominization

 

Paleogenesis of techno-logic

Some philosophical stakes

induced by the discoveries of paleoanthropology

 

  

Paleontology has been at the forefront of the most advanced theoretical thinking in France, especially since Jean Piel, who was the director of Critique magazine at the time, charged Jacques Derrida with writing a review of André leroi-Gourahn’s major work Le Geste et la Parole. His review is in large part at the origin of what became Derrida’s major work: De la grammatologie.

 

Derrida’s review led him to discover the truly revolutionary way Leroi-Gourhan, as all paleoanthropologists, view technical fact and the specificity of memory in human beings as a single issue.

 

Out of this new scientific data and crossing it with the questions raised by Freud and Saussure, as well as by Husserl and Heidegger, Derrida developed his philosophy of the trace, gramme and writing – which requires what he named logic of the supplement and a history of the supplement. This paleontological issue was raised again with the spectacular rise of mnemotechnologies induced by the development of digital networks and what has become known the internet of objects.

 

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Leroi-Gourhan started his career in anthropology as an ethnographical expert specialised in the Pacific and the Far-East. As a result of an enquiry done during the 1930s, he proposed a theory of technical evolution based upon the concept of technical tendencies, which he explained in L’Homme et la matière. His hypothesis, formulated in 1943, was that human groups develop in a relation that is essential to the techniques through which they individualise themselves both psychically and collectively, and which interface with the vital millieu by forming a technical millieu themselves. This technical milieu evolves according to universal technical tendencies arising from a composition between biophysiological laws which are imposed to the human being all over the planet and the laws of physics which are imposed to all matter in the universe [1].

 

The discovery of similar technical structures between peoples who have never had any contact – the Laponians and the inhabitants of the Sunda Islands, for instance – can only be explained by the fact that, faced with the same problems and in comparable environmental conditions, men (who share the same physiological characteristics) invent the same techniques, in a process described by Leroi-Gourhan as a convergence of that which he calls «technical facts». Leroi-Gourhan analysed the accomplishment of technical tendencies in the morphogenesis of the whaling harpoon used for hunting sea mammals both in the extreme north of the Pacific and thousands of kilometres away to the south, for instance.

 

The discovery of a fossilised skeleton along with his tools in the Olduvai Gorge in 1959 provided an entirely new set of evidences to support the theoretical hypotheses on the relationship between man and technique Leroi-Gourhan had postulated as early as 1943. This led to the development of the concept of exteriorisation process, of which technogenesis (a result of this process that essentially consists in an externalisation of memory) is the major fact of anthropogenesis, and coincides with it.

 

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The fossilised skeleton of the Zinjanthrope, discovered in South Africa by Mary and Louis Leakey, is the vestige of an Australopithecus dating from 1.75 million years ago – whose oldest biped ancestors date back 3.6 million years ago. It weighs approximately thirty kilograms. It is a true biped: there is a occipital hole precisely at a perpendicular angle to the basis of his skull. Hence he freed his front legs from motricity, and devoted them essentially to fabrication and expression, i.e., to exteriorisation.

 

Out of these facts Leroi-Gourhan showed what makes man’s humanity, what makes man a rupture in the history of life, a new type of living being – a progressive apparition Leroi-Gourhan named the hominisation process – a process of technical exteriorisation of the living. The dynamic element that had hitherto been linked to the living – conditions of predation and defence, i.e., of fight for one’s life (Leroi-Gourhan did not expand a lot on this: I have insisted much more on it than he did [2]) becomes external to the living. Man fights for his life using non-biological organs: he uses artificial organs which are techniques.

 

Leroi-Gourhan – and this is a decisive point – shows technique is a memory vector. From the Australopithecus (1.75 million years ago) to the Neanderthal (300,000 years ago), we went from broken pebbles, made by hitting two pebbles against each other in order to produce a spark (the result being, after a few movements, a cutting edge), to the hundreds of objects in the days of the Neanderthal, whose laurel leaves bear witness to true silex jewellery, which requires hundreds of gestures in vast operating lines and constitutes the technicity of an extremely exquisite handcraft.

 

There was a biological differentiation at the cerebral cortex level from the Australopithecus and the Neanderthal, know as the opening of the cortical shell. Yet, according to Leroi-Gourhan, the cortical system has little evolved since the Neanderthal. This means that the neuronal equipment of the Neanderthal was very similar to ours. However, technical evolution has not ceased to become more complex and accelerate since the days of the Neanderthal, up to a point where it seems to cause in the present what some people call an «anthropological rupture».

 

This means technical evolution does not depend on biological evolution (which these days might lead to an opposition between the bio-logical and the techno-logical). The technical concept is not inscribed beforehand in a biological organisation of the brain. In this sense we can say hominisation is an exteriorisation process: the space of differentiation is produced outside of the strictly biological space, regardless of it, outside of the «interior medium» in which, according to Claude Bernard, the elements that constitute the organism lie.

 

The exteriorisation process is also the process of constitution of that which must be perceived as a third layer of memory in relation to what is agreed on sexual living beings, ever since the Neo-Darwinism of molecular biologists, following Weismann’s work in the late-19th century: that they are made of two memories:

 

. the memory of the species, which is now called the genome, and which Weismann named the germen,

. and the memory of the individual, i.e., the so-called somatic memory, preserved in the individual’s central nervous system, which is the memory of experience.

 

This is true from the lymneas in Lake Geneva studied by Piaget to the chimpanzee, through insects and all vertebrates. This is the reason why you can domesticate a dog, a falcon or a cow: there is a margin of indeterminacy in individual memory, a neuronal plasticity which enables us to learn.

 

It happens that man has a third memory that animals do not have, which is constituted and supported by technique. A cut piece of silex is the inscription of a shape in an inorganic matter that is organised by cutting, the latter being what philosopher Gilbert Simondon called «form-taking»: the technical gesture engrammes an organisation that is transmitted via the inorganic, thus opening, for the first time in the history of life, the possibility of transmitting individually-acquired knowledge through a non-biological way.

 

This is why technique can not be dissociated from human memory: what makes the humanity of a memory, i.e. its spirituality, its ability to transmit itself from generation to generation – and return as the spirit of humankind, and as the haunting that tortures Hamlet so much as well. Such direct transmission of individual experiences from generation to generation is forbidden in the animal world. Which is why there is no animal culture or animal spirit (or, in more classical terms, there is no heredity of acquired traces). Although it is true that some great apes do have such cultures, this means they must be inscribed in the world that began with humankind – and, as the embryo of this third memory, they must be admitted to this process that is human pre-history as a hominisation process seen as an exteriorisation process, which is also why we feel we are so close to the great apes, even if this proximity scares us.

 

Human memory cannot be dissociated from technique, as it is epiphylogenetic: it should be qualified accordingly, as the third memory is at the same time the product of individual experience, which is called epigenetic, and the phylogenetic medium, i.e., that constitutes a true cross-generational cultural phylum, of the accumulation of knowledge of what we can no longer simply call the human species, but humankind instead.

 

There is a history of epiphylogenesis, and it is impossible to justify the possibility of knowledge without specifying the epiphylogenetic stages within which knowledge is produced. This epiphylogenetic melding contains language and technique, symbol and tool: language and technique highlight the same exteriorisation process. They are, as Leroi-Gourhan put it, two aspects of the same absolutely new reality in the history of life.

 

The essential fact is this exteriorisation, which precludes no interiority – but, conversely, causes an interiorisation, i.e., which is always both interiorisation and exteriorisation. In this respect, language is essentially linked to technical reality seen as a social product which is not made of a genetic determination, but whose structure has its own dynamics and forms a system, which I inherit, which I can interiorise and modify (as a game of rules in the case of language and as functional organisation in the case of technique). This double side of exteriorisation constitutes a techno-logic. The moment of interiorisation is always forgotten, yet also enables us to forget the primordial exteriority – like the water the fish is never able to see, as it can only see in the water.

 

If technique in general is for man an original milieu of epiphylogenetic memory, not all technique is made for memory-keeping: a cut piece of silex, for instance, was not made for keeping memory – it was made for cutting meat, to work on a material. It happens to be spontaneously also a memory vector. This is why archaeologists may reconstitute a civilisation from cut piece of silex, pieces of pottery or any kind of manufactured object: the gestures are kept in objects, which can be read to a different extent, thus becoming human motricity recording media, and subsequently human behaviour, i.e., the human spirit, recording media.

 

It is against this general epiphylogenetic background that usages we may rightly call mnemo-techniques – namely cave paintings – came, certainly after thirty or forty thousand years, maybe even since the Neanderthal and the early funerary practices. Human settlements then began to develop techniques and behaviours made for transmitting memory, which also include the churinga and all other sorts of mythograms and engrammings, such as the knotted ropes of the American Indians and the tattoos on the sorcerers’ bodies, which are also calculation instruments.

 

However, it was after the Neolithic period, i.e., little more than 10,000 years ago, when sedentarisation occurred, that true numbering systems were developed. These became what is acknowledged today as writing systems. Sedentarisation, which led to urban civilisation, was produced near present-day Iraq, with the Mesopotamian Empire. This meant the passage from hunter-gatherer to farmer and grazer who already produced a kind of primitive accumulation of capital, i.e., more than his immediate needs. This enabled man to «invest», technical, artistic, religious accomplishments, sumptuary as well as utilitarian, irrigation networks and pyramids, for instance, which correspond to what is usually called signs of civilisation.

 

Agriculture made it possible to accumulate stocks, and these had to be counted – this was how early counting systems appeared, inscribed on several media, and calculations from these inscriptions. These numbering systems soon made it possible to create a calendar system (which appeared in Mesopotamia at the end of the 4th millennium, and in Egypt, was divided into 365 days from the 3rd millennium onwards), and thus brought to the community the ability to anticipate season-related climate variations, especially flooding – on the Tiger, the Euphrates and the Nile.

 

Thus began the age of the Great Empires, which were the result of the combination of two facts that became potentialised: the richness of the alluvium of the great rivers and the written notation technique that enabled the anticipation of flooding and subsequently optimal exploration of the fertility of the alluviums. Soon notation systems evolved: in the course of nearly fifteen hundred years mnemotechniques shifted from hieroglyphs to the alphabet.

 

The alphabetical writing we use – including our computer and mobile phone motherboards – came with the Greeks. Alphabetisation built the Greek city: it was its condition of possibility. The Greek city was a community that lived with a critical knowledge of its living rules. These rules for life, as they are known, described and criticisable, are called Law.

The city can only possess such a critical knowledge of its rules for life because it has exteriorised and objectified them as written text, discerned in the word flux which has itself been made discreet by writing. Critical access to this text is open to the whole community, as the writing in question is the alphabet, i.e., a very economic system of diacritical signs, made out of less than thirty letters everyone can learn as reader and writer. This is why the first schools appeared in the Greek city.

On the other hand, the alphabet brought the possibility to literally, i.e., almost exactly, re-access thought – the passage and the past that thought is. If, for instance, we read Meno in the Greek from Plato’s time, we access Plato’s thoughts directly – regardless of Plato’s opinion on hypomnesis. We may, of course, interpret this text in several ways – but no more and no less than we could interpret Plato’s words in his presence. We might object, as Plato did in Phaedrus, that Plato might defend his own interpretation of his own words. Yet we do not know if Plato was the best interpreter of his own words. Besides, he himself might have changed the interpretation of his own words as time went by. Actually, this was exactly what happened: Plato did not interpret the myth of Persephone at the time of Meno as he did at the time of Phaedrus and The Republic, for instance.


We all interpret our lives differently as time goes by: fortunately, we change our point of view on the world and on ourselves. This means we do not understand our own words in the same way as time goes by – which also means our words are essentially open to an infinite diversity of possible interpretations, which witness the opening of the future and are chances brought to us by time as well. Yet this obviously does not mean all interpretations are valid. Everybody knows that, if Richter and Gould give very different – and admiring – interpretations of Bach, not all interpretations of Bach are valid.


As we read Plato’s words in Meno, we do not feel we have an approximate picture of what Plato thought: we are in an immediate relation with Plato’s thought and we know it from the heart. We are inside the actual element of Plato’s thought. This is not the case with cuneiform writing. The reading of the cuneiform writing of the Mesopotamians is still irreductibly uncertain as to its meaning. There is no possible doubt as far as the signification of Plato’s writings is concerned: it is their sense that is cause for debate – and their sense is not its signification (signification, as Wittgenstein said, is usage). What does not preserve its literal ortho-graphic recording is the tone, the prosody, which can only be preserved since the phonograph was invented.


The alphabet meant the coming of the first mnemotechnique in true orthothetic fashion. This neologism was formed from the Greek words orthotès and thésis. Orthotès means exactitude, and thésis means position. As with alphabetical writing, «orthothetic» writing states precisely the past. In that sense, they allow for an intensification of the cumulativity of technique in general, and especially of mnemotechniques, which by itself is a sudden accumulation of countless traces (which were gathered at the library in Alexandria before the fire). Yet here, cumulativity seems to reach an apparent quantum leap, as not only Plato started to write in a manner which was essential to his way of philosophising (regardless of the vices of hypomnesis), but also what he wrote was literally readable, and so it became possible to continue the dialogue with him in his absence – which was precisely what Aristotle did, what the Neoplatonists did, what the entire philosophy did, and what we pursue here, in this text that dia-logues with Plato, referring to some of his works that may be commented on word for word.


This possibility of comment is also that of anamnesis, i.e., of this process of recognition in which Plato identifies the very action of accessing truth in the exchange that a dialogue is. Far from being the opposite of anamnesis, as Plato claims, hypomnesis is its condition. However, this is an ambiguous condition: it may still prevent anamnesis, as Plato feared. In this respect, we are currently living in a dangerously hypomnesic era. Conversely, Plato’s statement that anamnesis is the opposite of hypomnesis is unacceptable. On the contrary, we must state that anamnesis is the good way to practice hypomnesis. However, this also means we must therefore overcome dialectics, as it appeals to the contradiction principle, as hypomnesic textuality is structurally open to a multiplicity of interpretations – which is what constitutes the dia-chronicity of thought, i.e. which means thought is the time of thought as it thinks the time of the technique that has never stopped evolving.


What makes it possible for us to dialogue with Plato today (and what makes it possible for Plato to dialogue with himself – throughout the time of his thought) is that he wrote his thought and that, his thought being written down, we may re-update it – or, as Husserl said, reactivate it as new intuition. It is also its possibility of reactivation, hidden in the literality of Greek texts, which always possess an analytical and critical moment and always has a polemical moment, which is the point of origin of a sort of ray of light – and which gives us that very bright, crystal-clear vision of Greece which is imposed on us to this day. We get the impression that Greece was all about light: this is what is known as the «Greek miracle». Of course, there is also the Parthenon – however, erecting the Parthenon was itself linked to the coming of writing. This «light» is the effect of an era of epiphylogenesis. Far from being pure and simple enlightenment, its support was a very material one.

 

Against this backdrop of man’s epiphylogenetic situation came mnemotechniques thousands of years ago. They became writings from the Neolithic onwards. The alphabet had a founding role circa the seventh century BC: it was no less than the west that stemmed from this – whereas around Greece, in a consonantic form of the alphabet, the first Bible books were also written from the eleventh century BC.

 

Mnemotechniques enable material retention time, to preserve the past in a reactivatable form according to a given mnemotechnique’s own characteristics. The study of the working conditions of collective and individual conscience is fundamentally conditioned by the study of the techniques that enable conscience to access its own past. This is obviously an important issue, as mnemotechniques, which have become mnemotechnologies, are currently at the core of industrial development.

 

Alphabetical writing is a literal synthesis of memory. From the 19th century onwards, with the industrial revolution, new techniques to preserve memory, new mnemotechniques, orthothetic, such as literal synthesis, came up, yet in a new way. Visual and audio perception analogical synthesis technologies, photography and phonography, as well as the alphabet, allowed for the exact preservation and transmission, having fixed it on a material medium, an element of the past. This is no longer about the signification of a vocal enunciation, whose ortho-graphic symbols give back the diacriticity of the language phonemes, and through them, signification, but rather, for example, light and sound frequencies produced by an object of perception – a singer’s or an actor’s voice, the sound of an orchestra, light frequencies emitted by a landscape or a face.

 

From the nineteenth century onwards, new orthotheses were able to reconstruct much larger layers of the past than those that were at the foundation of the civilisation of the book: sculpture, painting and the artistic means of representing the past, etc., existed already, yet these were not really orthothetic recordings. If we retrace the path that links us back to the Australopithecus, we can say man is an epiphylogenetic being, and that in the history of epiphylogenesis, which has begun slightly less than two million years ago as an exteriorisation process, mnemotechniques appeared arguably tens of thousands of years ago; then, after the Neolithic, came written notation systems, which gave rise to the first orthothetic synthesis of memory, the literal synthesis of the alphabet, which was joined, in the nineteenth century, by the analogical orthothetic synthesis, first with photography, then phonography, and later, in the twentieth century, cinematography, radio and television.

The importance of the printing press as a duplication technique should be stressed here. However, this mechanical reproduction technique merely magnified the effect of literal synthesis and was not a new form of synthesis in itself. The effects of this development of the alphabetical orthothesis have obviously gone a long way; nevertheless, they are not a new orthothetic synthesis. Conversely, this was clearly a new age in epiphylogenesis – one that conditioned the coming of colonisation, followed by capitalism.

 

The second half of the 20th century saw the coming of digital orthothetic synthesis, first through IT and currently through all kinds of electronic devices. Once again, this new revolution in recording is about to transform deeply what some philosophers call the ecstasy of time – i.e., the relation between the past, the future and the present.

 

The main consequences of the evolution of the epiphylogenetic background that constitutes humankind are a modification of the relationship between the three terms of this time stasis. In other words, after the industrial revolution, a very important part of which was about the development of new mnemotechnologies, especially during the 20th and the 21st centuries, we have experienced changes in the temporalisation conditions, i.e., also in individuation, i.e., the process by which we, either as individuals or as a group, become what we are.

 

We are essentially temporal beings. The epiphylogenetic supports of our temporality are the prime conditioning factor of our relation with time, i.e., with ourselves as long as we keep becoming, as long as we have a future, as long as we are essentially in future mode, as long as we devote all our energy and strength to trying to anticipate (usually to no avail, although with some effects) what we (have) become – and even what the world after us will be like.



[1] See LG,  , and my comment in TT1.

[2]  In Chapter Two of La faute d’Epiméthée.

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