I thought I would put together a few comments/notes from the series of talks at Five Years the other week, these follow on specifically from Chris Knight’s presentation on the origins of language and why chimps can’t talk.
The initial premise that Knight put forward, following on from Chomsky, is that although chimpanzees and other animals that exhibit high levels of communication this cannot be seen as language in the sense that it is non-symbolic. A chimp cannot lie, all their communication is real, they do not say ‘I am angry’ or conversely dissemble ‘no I am not angry’ because the chimp vocalisation of anger is the embodiment of anger. We still of course carry these vocal communications with us from our evolutionary past in various forms; laughing, crying, screaming etc. However humans have developed a low cost version that can be communicated without so greater emotional expenditure and crucially carried over space and time – language.
So far so straight forward. The next stage is obviously where did this low cost communication method come from? It is not exhibited by our nearest living genetic neighbours and is unproven in Neanderthals(1), Knight suggests that it is tied to a wider symbolic order – i.e. that it developed concurrently and inseparably with wider culture. The thing here is that humanity exists at the same time in two contradictory universes, that of the world that is – the real world of objects – and in a shared illusion of a symbolic order that we use to over lay and comprehend the real, and we are really bad at separating the reality from the symbolic.
(I will now go off from following Chris Knight’s presentation and onto my own thoughts some of which come from the discussion afterwards).
Two side thoughts: I don’t know how and if this relates to the Real and Symbolic within Lacanian psychology, but it does remind me of Bataille’s Theory of Religion and the idea that ‘the animal world is that of immanence and immediacy'(2) and it is the subconscious(?) knowledge of that lack of immanence within humanity that leads to the creation of religion. Both Lacan and Bataille were attendees at Kojéve’s lectures on Hegel more on this later possibly.
Although we physically exist in both real and symbolic universes we exist cognitively entirely within the symbolic, where we find art, religion, morality, economics, love and all those things that are referred to as ‘human nature’, as in ‘you can’t change human nature’. This symbolic order is however real and true, for given values of real and true(3). Things within the symbolic universe exist – love makes the world go round, and the same is said of money, yet money is a late arrival within the symbolic order, arising from the requirement to pay someone to protect your crops. There are certain aspects of the symbolic order that are remarkably durable and universal; love is probably one, fairness another, some form of higher purpose a third. Other aspects seem to be universal; the Godhead, the Imperium, the Party but end up being transient, their collapse leading to a sense of cognitive dissonance that can only be filled with a major readjustment of reality, or death.
I was thinking on all this when, the other day, I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) – Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, which is about the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of France. This Palaeolithic site contains some of the oldest examples of European cave painting from between 35 and 30 thousand years before present, a time, prior to the last ice age, when Europe was home to a wide variety of mega-fauna; mammoths, woolly rhino, giant deer and the like. And genetically modern humans shared the landscape with Neanderthals.
As I was watching the film I was struck by the lack of phantasmatic representation within the images on the cave walls; although there was undoubtedly a spiritual dimension to the depiction of animals within the cave (attested to by the cave bear skull set upon a rock plinth and the almost pathological lack of day-to-day finds(4)) it was a representation of the world-as-it-is, there were no dragons, griffins or minotaurs. Could it be that the spirituality that the hunters who made these drawing possessed required no representations of the immaterial, in a world of superabundance there was no need to look to a beyond for anything other than a continuation of the current state of affairs? We do not need angels only aurochs.
The other aspect of this is the drawings as that bit of the symbolic order that carries over space and time; they are fully formed examples of humanity that we can still understand after such a gulf of history. Our history from the first recorded author, the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna (pre 2250 BCE) until now, fits entirely within the carbon dating of the first drawing in Chauvet Cave to the last. One of my favourite moments in the film is when the experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein, dressed in furs as might have been warn by the artists of Chauvet, demonstrates that, on a replica of a palaeolithic flute constructed in a pentatonic scale, you can play the Star Spangled Banner.
(2) Bataille G. Theory of Religion, 1989, Zone Books p.23
(3) Is this where the Lacanian Real comes in? Cf. Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) when discussing Neo’s choice in The Matrix ‘I want a third pill. […] a pill that would enable me to perceive, not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sFqfbrsZbw
(4) Ritual is hinted at with some of the red ochre markings but the full picture might be provided by mechanisms unrecoverable by archaeology in this context, e.g. psychotropics or imitative body art (see Coulson and Staurset in Radical Anthropology vol. 5 (pp.12-17) for evidence of Mesolithic body painting from Botswana. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…