Gesture as Language

David Trotter

  • A Cultural History of Gestures: From Antiquity to the Present edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg
    Polity, 220 pp, £35.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 7456 0786 1
  • The New Oxford Book of 17th-Century Verse by Alastair Fowler
    Oxford, 830 pp, £25.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 214164 3

According to Boswell, Johnson was so hostile to gesticulation that ‘when another gentleman thought he was giving additional force to what he uttered, by expressive movements of his hands, Johnson fairly seized them and held them down.’ But in restraining someone else’s gestures, he himself gestured; he gave additional force to his opinion by expressive movements of his hands. Gesture is unavoidable, because the body is seldom completely at rest, and almost any of its movements might assume significance in the eyes of an observer. History does not record that Johnson made any effort to restrain the limb with which he was about to refute Bishop Berkeley.

It is because we cannot help our gestures that so much effort has been put, over the centuries, into classifying and regulating them. Traces of this effort survive: in the manuals compiled for orators, actors, preachers; in legal depositions and travellers’ journals; in the huge volume of prescriptive writing on manners; in paintings and novels. In his introductory essay to the first of these books, Keith Thomas proposes that the cultural historian should reconstruct from such evidence the ‘grammar of gesture’, as part of a larger attempt to define ‘all the codes and conventions which create the context for meaningful behaviour in the society under study’.

Joanneath Spicer does exactly that in an absorbing essay about elbows in Renaissance painting. She concentrates on 17th-century Holland, where one particular stance – indicating, she thinks, self-possession – almost achieved the ‘status of a national attribute’. A surprisingly large proportion of militia company portraits include one or more figures with an arm pugnaciously akimbo: usually not the commanding officer, who might consider himself above overt pugnacity, but a lieutenant or standard-bearer. The aggressors are sometimes complemented, as are the civic dignitaries assembled around tables in other corporate portraits, by a figure at the edge of the group whose elbow bars the way to intruders. In marriage and family portraits of the period, the husband’s body is all jutting angles, the wife’s all recessive curves. These attractively self-possessed bourgeois males are giving the elbow to anyone who might threaten their towns, corporations, families.

Spicer is able to show how composition mediates the social symbolism. The elbows jut not only at phantom intruders, but at us. They press up against the picture-plane, creating a boundary or threshold; or guard the channels along which the eye must pass in order to reach the centre of pictorial space. The swagger of these portraits leads Spicer to conclude that it might have been the relative social and gender equality of Dutch society which encouraged those holding power to seek to ‘accentuate the symbols of their hegemony and the respect due to their guardianship’. The coherence of the ruling class, and the close relations between patron and artist, both in assertive mood, lend credence to her thesis.

The ‘grammars’ investigated by other contributors range from that governing posture in Classical Greece to that governing masculinity in contemporary Andalusia. There are some fascinating vignettes. Jan Bremmer reveals that an Athenian male who swayed his hips when he walked, or looked over his shoulder, or inclined his head to one side, was quite likely to be classified as a passive homosexual. Fritz Graf finds Quintilian in Rumpole of the Bailey mood, denouncing orators who gesticulate so wildly that it is scarcely safe to stand behind them. Robert Muchembled discovers almost the same degree of formality among Breton peasants as Maria Bogucka does among Polish courtiers and diplomats. I liked her account of a ‘farewell ceremony’ in 18th-century Poland. ‘A certain Miss Szamowska saying goodbye to a young gentleman called Tollohub offered him, as was customary, a glass of wine. Tollohub was already sitting on his horse, ready to ride off. He drank the wine, put the empty glass between the ears of his horse, broke it with one shot of his pistol, dismounted, prostrated himself, and asked the girl to marry him.’ Irresistible – though one would like to have the horse’s point of view.

Vignettes, however, don’t necessarily explain anything. On the whole, the contributors to this volume are more convincing when they reconstruct the ‘grammar’ of a particular gesture than when they elaborate on the uses to which such a grammar might have been put, or on the ways in which it might have provided a context for ‘meaningful behaviour’. Problems arise not so much from a lack of evidence as from the model of communication adopted. All the contributors regard gesture as a ‘language’ whose grammar can be reconstructed: language and gesture are parallel forms of communication which both involve a process of encoding and decoding. According to this view, communication requires no more than the encoding of a message (self-possession) into a signal (jutting elbow), and the subsequent decoding of that signal back into a message. But the process of encoding and decoding is rarely if ever sufficient to ensure communication. In order to understand an utterance, we must first decode its linguistic content, and then use that decoded content as the basis for inferring what the speaker means to communicate. It is the second process, inference, which completes the act of communication.

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