Marcel Jousse: Forgotten Pioneer of Media Studies

Marcell Jousse was a pioneering scholar of gesture and orality. He was a younger contemporary and student of Marcel Mauss. During the inter-war years, he published a series of seminal studies on orality and gesture that garnered wide spread recognition. The publication of his first book in 1925, The Rhythmic and Mnemotechnical Oral Style of the Verbo-motors, caused an immediate sensation and earned him a series of prestigious posts in Paris, including a stint at the Sorbonne. However, shortly after his death in 1961, Jousse’s work fell into relative obscurity. Because his work is only recently finding its way into English translation, thanks largely to the efforts of Edgard Richard Sienaert, he is little known in the English-speaking world. (To get a feel for how little known, take a look at his Wikipedia page). But his work did not escape notice altogether. It features prominently in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Ong advanced a simple, yet profound thesis: “writing restructures consciousness.” As Ong traced the antecedents of his thesis, which was largely the synthesis of a substantial body of existing work, he acknowledged a debt to Jousse’s distinction, based on his rural upbringing and extensive field work in the Middle East, between “oral composition” and “written composition.” Further on, Ong succinctly summarized Jousse’s larger theoretical framework:

“Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall, even physiologically. Jousse has shown the intimate linkage between rhythmic oral patterns, the breathing process, gesture, and the bilateral symmetry of the human body in ancient Aramaic and Hellenic targums …”

Ong also deployed Jousse’s formulation, verbomotor, to designate cultures that “retain enough oral residue to remain significantly word-attentive in a person-interactive context (the oral type of context) rather than object-attentive.” It may not be entirey unreasonable to suggest that Ong’s work is in large part an elaboration of Jousse’s research. And, while I haven’t done the research to confirm this, I’m willing to bet that somewhere along the line he played part in the thought of Marshall McLuhan.

Not unlike McLuhan, Jousse’s method and writing was controversial, and in some respects ahead of his time. Here is Sienaert’s description of his fist book which was at the time was termed “The Jousse Bomb” (I’m not making that up):

“The Oral Style is a most unusual book. Jousse had read some five thousand books from a bewildering variety of disciplines. From these, he selected five hundred pertinent to his topic, and from them he chose extracts which reflected in some way his observations, which he linked by his own bracketed words, sentences and paragraphs. He thus recycled old materials, building a new house from old bricks, following his own research injunction: The aim of research is to quest for and discover fresh insights and under­standing. But how can we discover something fresh and new when it appears as if all has already been discovered? By the incessant, meticulous and de­tailed scrutiny of the Old.”

Ivan Illich also drew on Jousse in his study of medieval cultures of reading, In the Vineyard of the Text. Illich was particularly impressed by Jousse’s work on psychomotor reading techniques employed in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic settings. Memorization in these contexts was construed as a fully embodied rather than strictly mental activity. Illich noted that the content of sacred texts was memorized “through careful attention paid to the psychomotor nerve impulses which accompany the sentences being learned.” In Koranic and Jewish schools, students read aloud as they swayed and rocked back and forth and in this way were able to later “re-evoke” the text through the activation of those same body movements. In this analysis, Illich is explicitly drawing on research conducted by Jousse:

“Marcel Jousse has studied these psychomotor techniques of fixing a spoken sequence in the flesh. He has shown that for many people, remembrance means the triggering of a well-established sequence of muscular patterns to which the utterances are tied. When the child is rocked during a cradle song, when the reapers bow to the rhythm of a harvest song, when the rabbi shakes his head while he prays or searches for the right answer, or when the proverb comes to mind only upon tapping for a while — according to Jousse, these are just a few examples of a widespread linkage of utterance and gesture. Each culture has given its own form to this bilateral, dissymmetric complementarity by which sayings are graven right and left, forward and backward into trunk and limbs, rather than just into the ear and the eye.”

Ong’s and Illich’s concerns overlap with, but do not encompass the scope of Jousse’s ambitious anthropological project. Jousse developed a cosmological, mimetic theory of human communication. The universe, according to Jousse, impresses itself upon human beings. In fact, it impresses itself on all objects and organisms. The whole of reality is acting and acted upon. Human beings, however, not only receive this impression; they also act out the impression they have received, and this acting out is originally gestural. Sienaert summarizes:

“Man thus first relates to the world which imposes upon him the play of actual experiences. But this is not a passive process: on reception of reality, man is also animated by an energy that is released and that makes him react in the form of gestures.”

Moreover, human beings are uniquely capable of not only responding in their gestures to the impressions of reality, they are capable of re-playing or re-presenting those impressions. In other words, they can remember, they have memories. And before the advent of language, these memories were carried in the body. The transition from gestural to spoken language marks, in Jousse’s view, the transition from anthropology to ethnology. Generic humanity is particularized through the conventional language into which they are socialized.

Yet, even after this transition, the gestural foundations of communication and response to the universe remain embedded in the human being. These underlying structuring principles reveal themselves in what Jousse termed “the oral style.” The oral style is encapsulated in three laws summarized as follows by Sienaert:

1. Le rythmo-mimisme: the law of rhythmo-mimicry. Man is a mimic, he receives, registers, plays, and replays his actual experiences; as movement is possible in sequence only, mimicry is necessarily linked with rhythm.

2. Le bilatéralisme: the law of bilateralism. Man can only express himself in accordance with his physical structure which is bilateral—left and right, up and down, back and forth—and like his global and manual expression, his verbal expression will tend to be bilateral, to balance symmetrically, following a physical and physiological need for equilibrium …

3. Le formulisme: the law of formulism. The biological tendency towards the stereotyping of gestures creates habit, which ensures immediate, easy and sure replay; it is a facilitating psycho-physiological device as it organizes the intussusceptions and the mnesic replay in automatisms—acquired devices necessary to a firm basis for action …

In formulating these laws, based on his study of oral cultures, Jousse came strikingly close to the most prominent contours of the phenomenological account of the body’s role in human perception developed independently by the tradition of thought spanning Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These laws, in other words, may be understood to govern not only verbal expression, but also embodied experience as a whole.

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