- In November of 1943 the ethnographer Marcel Maget and the prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan presented twinned papers at the monthly meeting of the Société du folklore français. The announcement for the presentation positioned the two as seemingly opposed, a tête à tête between the prehistorian’s “enquête extensive” and the ethnographer’s “enquête intensive.” However, instead of a match between the modern and tabulated process of extensive inquiry––with its connotations of scientific classification and aerial objectivity––and the more dirty materiality of fieldwork associated with intensive inquiry, the two presentations hewed to the same polemic. Both papers addressed the problems that ethnographic method encountered when faced with technical objects, proclaiming the inability of existing practices to accurately represent the totality of technologies and techniques. Leroi-Gourhan opened the evening with a question directed at the immediate experience of his seated audience:
- I don't know if many of you know how to make a chair. Usually we are satisfied with this reassuring reality: there are chairs. Our material civilization can be expressed in daily units and we can sit all our life without ever having imagined what a chair is.”
- Over the course of his presentation, Leroi-Gourhan elaborated differences between use and recognition, fabrication and conception, targeting the methodological distinction between representation and classification in the human sciences. Dismissing the reductive taxonomies of the Dakar-Djibouti mission’s Instructions Sommaires, the most recent formalization of ethnographic method and schemae, he argued for an approach that dealt not with the finished products and objects of material culture, but one that began from the point of departure of techniques themselves: following the transformation of raw material into a finished product in order to make the comparative study of work and workers a “complete science.” As he instructed his audience, after the two presentations of that evening, after hearing from an “archaeologist, a French ethnographer, and a comparative technologist, perhaps you will come to know what the chair that you came to sit here on is.”
- In underscoring the being and identity of the chair, Leroi-Gourhan was not making an argument indebted to the vitalism of Bergson’s aesthetic theory, but rather making a fundamentally materialist claim, and, in the process, aggrandizing the explanatory power of the field he would, the next year, claim intellectual ownership of. While comparative technology, technologie comparatif, had developed from ethnography, it was only the comparative aspect, the structuralist isolation of the stages of technical assembly, that marked it as a new method. In the early 1930’s, the question of technique––a question which encompassed its use as a method for humanistic and historiographical inquiry as well as its import for the modernization of industry and the conservation of traditional practices––had become a focal point for both the convergence of interdisciplinary intellectual labor and the interrelationship between the plastic and industrial arts, both of which utilized the term synthèse to depict the group method of analysis and production they employed. As far as ethnographers were concerned, since the formalization of Marcel Mauss’ pedagogy at the Institut d'ethnologie, techniques of the body and the technomorphology of material culture constituted central subjects for the young science in both its materialist and museological valences as well as its theoretic and generative impulses.