2009 Gesture, or the BWO of speech

Semiotix, On-line journal

That Bodies speak has been known for a long time Gilles Deleuze (1990)

For most people, gesture refers to a primitive, non-intellectual expression of feeling, a rudimentary and somewhat low-grade kind of communication. The very idea of humans pointing and waving parts of their bodies at each other, themselves, or their gods, appears atavistic, a relic of a time before speech; a harking back to the origin of the species, to simian chatter or cavemen grunts, to modes of sociality and sense- making overtaken by the development of language. In relation to the cultural complexity attached to the spoken word and the visual image, gesture is seen as a poor, unsophisticated third; pre-rational and retrograde, belonging with ceremonies and rituals of the body, with dance and theatrical practices, festivals, sacrifices to gods; offering little to contemporary discourse about thought and language beyond a specialized anthropological and restricted artistic interest. In short, one encounters everywhere a dismissive attitude if not hostility to the notion that gesture be taken seriously.

But gesture, it seems, is being re-evaluated, re-cognized and in some sense, reclaimed. Thus, despite (and because of) its supposed primitivism, and for several motives, gesture is increasingly the object of attention and interest — precisely in relation to semiosis and the question of the ‘human’ — from different directions within the contemporary scene. One might start by observing that contrary to etymology (lingua tongue) and general use one cannot identify language with speech. The most deeply maintained hostility to gesture occurs where speech is absent, in the history of the deaf and the suppression by their educators of Sign, the gesture-based system used by the deaf to communicate. A history and antagonism not yet over: various universities in the United States currently block the proposal to study ASL (American Sign Language) in fulfillment of foreign language requirements with three objections: ASL lacks a written form; ASL is not a ‘real’ language; ASL is not a ‘foreign’ language. Behind this kettle logic lies the remnants of an oralist — phono-imperialist — educational philosophy which succeeded in 1880, at the international conference of deaf educators in Milan, in banning all use of Sign (from European and American schools) in favour of enforced voicing and lip-reading by the deaf. “Gesture”, as the organizers put it, “is not the true language of man … Gesture, instead of addressing the mind, addresses the imagination and the senses.

Thus, for us, it is an absolute necessity to prohibit that language and to replace it with living speech, the only instrument of human thought.” (Lane 1984, 391) An eradication of gesture consonant with the prevailing gender hiearchy subordinating the body (female) to thought (male). The oralists campaigned against the use of Sign on the grounds that it isolated the deaf from normal — speaking — society, threatening to promote what Alexander Graham Bell fearfully called “a deaf variety  of the human race”. Thus, the recognition of the linguistic power of Sign, evidenced  in Bell’s fears (as well as in numerous accounts of the deaf since the 17th century), became a contributory reason for banishing it; which in turn erased this very recognition by allowing the prevailing caricature of Sign as pantomime to go unchallenged. In the 1960s this simplistic derogation of Sign exhibited its first crack. William Stokoe, a young professor at Gallaudet University, found it impossible to accede to the picture of Sign as exaggerated gestures, imitative movements lacking organization, regularity or internal structure. On the contrary, the students’ gestures were abstract, not primarily mimetic or iconic, and were internally composite:  distinct hand configurations and identifiable movements in space; they were also regular and predictable and appeared to form a language. The result was the publication of a Dictionary of ASL in 1966 followed by a demonstration by Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi that ASL had all the properties linguists expected in a language — lexicon, grammar, syntax and morphological rules — and appeared as expressive and capacious as any spoken language. Since then, other varieties of  Sign (British, Australian, Chinese, Danish, and many more) have followed. These varieties of Sign are different from each other and independent of the spoken language (but obviously not the effects of the culture, some of which are linguistic) surrounding them. Moreover, all varieties of Sign differ from spoken languages, in their indexical use of space. This means not only a richer capacity for depiction as opposed to verbal description, but that what is necessarily linear and sequential in speech can at all levels — grammar, syntax, lexicon, morphology — be simultaneous, parallel and multi-layered in Sign. The complex topological sequences of Sign’s gestural choreography, “language in four dimensions” (William Stokoe), thus exhibits possibilities of articulation and expression (and perhaps conceptualization) different from those of speech. The obverse side of Sign’s spatial and dynamic complexity is that (as its detractors in the academy object) it has, at least so far, no accepted written form and hence no ‘literature’.

The challenge Sign poses to phonocentric linguistics has cultural and phenomenological correlates. Culturally (and politically), Sign enables the deaf to de- medicalize themselves as Deaf rather than deaf, as, in other words, a linguistic group who use Sign (no differently from any other group defined/constituted by their language) and not as a people who are speech/hearing deficient. Experientially,  those born deaf can by definition have no voice-in-the-head so familiar to the  hearing in its role as monitor, author, vehicle and evidence of consciousness; instead all these functions are discharged gesturally: those who Sign have internal kinesis, gestures not sounds in the head. This raises the intriguing possibility of an internally ‘seen/felt’ creation of a psyche different in certain phenomenological and cognitive directions, from the internally ‘heard/voiced’ linearized self-consciousness familiar to the hearing.

Besides its importance as the medium of Sign, gesture’s re-evaluation comes from digital technologies, in the first instance the development of audio and visual technologies of speech recognition and simulation and motion capture. Each of which by digitizing the body’s activities, and in the case of motion capture making gestures objects of consciousness, is heralding a new, post-documentist mode of re- presenting human movement. One consequence of this is to allow gesture to be used as a mode of human-computer interface. A third source is the decades long and ongoing engagement across the humanities with ‘embodiment’, with the re- evaluation of bodies as sites of material and discursive social-historical practices: bodies as objects constructed at the shifting boundaries between the bio-medical and cultural, the actual and virtual. An engagement producing transformations in how   we think of, narrate, understand, and experience what we have for so long (blithely and for the most part without reflection) referred to ‘bodies’. Certainly, whatever else it may be, gesture is a body thing; part of the body’s shape, its affective envelope,  its presence to itself and to others. And just as certainly, a new era of the body is upon us, wherein the creative effects — spiritual, epistemological, ecological, aesthetico-ethical, ontological — of our corporeal finitude are being cognized (as if   for the first time). “We have just only begun”, as Gilles Deleuze paraphrasing Baruch Spinoza has it, “to understand what the body is capable of”. An era that recognizes that we have/are embodied minds, enfleshed psyches whose inner states — thinking and imagining, dreaming, feeling, remembering, self-experiencing — cannot (except in the fantasies of certain techno-transcendentalists) be disengaged from the body.

The body-self, increasingly assembled at different places, times and speeds according to heterogeneous imperatives and agencies, is becoming distributed and collectivized. Corporeality, being/having a body and a self, is going plural, going parallel against old forms of being singular, unitary and sequential. Given this, the status of gestures — which make and are made by the body — could hardly remain the same: one cannot think gesture at the present time without re-thinking it, without recognizing the need for a gesturology. I do no more here than gesture to such a project by trying to say why, at this moment in its history, gesture might be significant and interesting enough to deserve its own ology. Behind this claim for its significance is an implicit valorization of gesture’s so-called primitiveness: the fact that it is more ancient than speech, pre- and counter-intellectual in character, more indexical/iconic than symbolic, and a source, perhaps the earliest, of the imagistic- holistic dimension of thought. Without question, gesture — the work that it does — reaches deep into human sociality, to its affective and ancient core. It is as essential to the ongoing making of the human (from the proffered breast to the turn-taking which inducts infants into language to the maintenance of innumerable symbolic practices), as it is inseparable from the wordless empathy without which what sociologist Michel Mafesoli calls puissance or the ‘will to live’ would not be possible; therein — in its primitiveness, linguistic silence, and aboriginality — lies its importance and value.ii

What is intended by gesture? Understood broadly, any body-movement that can be identified, repeated, and assigned significance or affect as a sign, a function, or an experience.. The movement in question can be already concluded: positions, poses, postures, tableaux, attitudes are the results or frozen end-products of gestures — striking a pose, taking an attitude, stance or position, assuming a posture, and so  on. A gesture can be a bodily antic, an expressive practice, a routine, a mediation, or performance; any iterable pattern the body creates and manifests, any recognizable kinesis can become a gesture: raising an eyebrow, blowing a kiss, puckering the lips, shrugging, exiting in high dudgeon, any kind of dancing, playing the violin, genuflecting, giving the finger, clenching the fists, beating a rhythm, nodding the head, making an ASL sign, altering volume, pitch or tone of voice, laughing, sobbing, marching, jumping on the spot, sighing, hammering in a nail, … , painting, drawing, scratching on a surface, daubing, tapping on a keyboard, turning a screw, stroking a cat, slicing an apple, and so on, and so forth. One might divide gestures ialong three modes of embodiment or aspects of being embodied: the semiotic (signifying/affective body), the instrumental (functioning body), and the immersive (experiencing/participating body). Semiotically, the body expresses, communicates, speaks, writes, gives signs, uses language and the apparatus of codes to construct, convey or mediate significance, meaning, affect. In the instrumental mode — pounding a nail, turning a wheel, slicing an apple, swallowing and so on — the body is captured by a machinic circuit, it becomes a mechanical apparatus (more accurately part of a mechanical transduction), the source of what Andre Leroi- Gourhan calls “technics”. In the immersive mode, the body presents, performs, enjoys and experiences itself through enacted and participatory activities, as in beating a rhythm, dancing, marching, smelling a flower, and sexual engagement.

Note that the same gesture can be semiotic and experiential and perhaps also functional, depending on who is its source and who/what the recipient. If one asks, for example, about the movements, postures, and gestures of dance, or of acting, or of music — are they semiotic or experiential? — the answer will depend: “There are two musics”, Roland Barthes, tells us, “the music one listens to, the music one plays.

… Two different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic”. (1977, 149) Likewise, dance as spectacle, as an art form of bodies choreographed for an audience and designed to express, signify, and encapsulate meanings and affects for observers, is semiotic; whereas dance for the dancer immersed in these same movements and gestures and participating in their production is experiential; and the same doubling pervades the gestures of all theatrical performance. In what follows, my concern is entirely with the semiotic — the body as meaning, affect, representation, and significance. The topics of the participating body immersed in the construction of experience, and the instrumental body captured within a machinic circuit, I leave for another occasion.

Observe that among gestures, haptic gestures, those involving touch, seem especially important; as if the possibility of contact with the body of the self or the other (patting, kissing, hugging, clapping hands, slapping the back, shaking hands, punching, grabbing and stroking oneself, squeezing a shoulder, wringing one’s hands, and so on) gives such gestures a particular intensity or potency not found in audio-visual forms; as if the inescapability of being touched when touching, the circuit of reciprocity, a doubling or folding over to form a new inside/outside produces a particular form of subjectivity. A couple of examples. According to more than one neurological account of the mind, a form of internal touching, a virtual auto-hapticity, is a prefiguring or rehearsal or condition for the possibility of self- consciousness. The idea rests on the fact that most of the brain monitors and is connected not to sensors measuring the world but to other parts of the brain —

including parts which contain a map of the body’s surface. This makes a form of self- touching or reflexivity inside the brain possible, in which the brain, by exciting/inhibiting regions of itself, achieves a kind of phantom or virtual proprioception, a primitive template of the self becoming (auto)aware. And a quite different example of haptic gesture, where the touching is of an external social other rather than an inner neurological self, comes from the work of psychologist Robin Dunbar (1996), who hypothesizes that a particular form of prolonged haptic gesture — primate grooming — gave rise to speech. The idea being that when primate bands got too big, too disseminated, too complex for grooming, a surrogate for it — gossip — which one might understand as grooming at a distance or virtual grooming, was made available through the development of spoken language.

But speculations on consciousness and the evolution of spoken language whilst  highly relevant to the semiotic ur-sites of gesture are not my concern here. I’m interested in the relation between speech and gesture in their present day conception, specifically in the hierarchy, the downgrading of gesture in relation to spoken language, mentioned earlier. My aim is to dissolve the dominance of  language over the field of corporeal semiosis, to deny that gesture is a mere supplement to speech, to pull it out from the shadow of speech and re-conceive gesture as an autonomous and complex attribute of the body. In a sense, what is offered here will be a deconstruction, a working out of the two-fold process that Derrida called the logic of the supplement, whereby a supposedly ordered binary, a major term and a supposed supplement to it, is inverted and displaced. For Derrida, the hierarchy was that of speech over writing: speech being supposedly primary, the site of presence to oneself, and the ground on which the supplement of writing, seen as that which comes after speech as a technique of notating it, operated. On the contrary, Derrida argued, writing comes before speech in at least two ways. First, writing or graphism, understood as a a general mode of signifying operating throughout cultural production, was always more and other than a device of speech inscription; in fact, according to this, speech itself relies on features — spacing, for example — of writing in this larger sense. Second, the very conception we have of the structure and constituents of speech which are assumed to have preceded writing cannot be divorced from its action; “The syllable, as David Olson observes, “is as much a product of graphic system as a prerequisite for it.” (Olson 1994, x)

 For us, there is again a displacement of speech, but in the opposite direction: not in relation to a more abstract and disembodied concept of spacing, but in relation to the more concrete semiosis of the body. In other words, the hierarchy to be deconstructed is speech over gesture, a ranking which understands gesture as a mere semiotic supplement, an outmoded precursor of spoken language. We shall invert and displace this in three directions. First, we note that gesture is outside speech: an extensive and important class of gestures, so-called emblems, far from being subordinate or epiphenomenal to spoken language, exceed it and are in essence incommensurable with it. Second, gesture is alongside speech: witnessed in the class of body movements – gesticulations – that are in a relation not of subordination but of co-origination to speech. Third, gesture is inside speech: any claim for speech’s distance from let alone dominance of gesture has to negotiate the fact that speech is physiologically an assemblage of different kinds of gesture. A feature that bears crucially on the fate of the voice when speech is inscribed.

Gesture outside, alongside, and inside speech

Gesture outside speech. Emblem gestures are the ones permeating social life that “regulate and comment on the behavior of others, reveal one’s emotional states, make promises, swear oaths, insult, threaten” (David NcNeill 1992, 64). They constitute a heterogeneity of culturally specific body movements: holding up a palm, nodding the head, putting hand on heart, squeezing a shoulder, giving the finger, cheering, winking, bowing, saluting, blowing a kiss, shrugging, clasping hands in prayer, smiling, turning the face, and countless other visible, impossible to list. Unlike words which are meaningless outside their differential relations with other words and their combinations via syntax, emblems are self-contained, do not aggregate and, though socially and culturally coded, evade any systematic linguistic categorization.

Like all gestures emblems are events. They signify by happening, their meaning is in their taking place, in their being performed. In particular, emblems don’t describe situations, state facts, facilitate reasoning, or generate propositions. Rhetorically  they have to do with pathos and/or ethos rather than logos. They project force, power and affect as against significance, representation, and information. Though functioning like speech acts many common emblems — giving the finger, a wink, a bowed head, hands held in prayer, a shrug — either have non-equivalent, semantically disparate or inchoate verbal renderings or cannot be parsed into speech at all. For such as these, their value and semiotic distinctiveness in social  encounters, ceremonies and rituals though interwoven with speech lies precisely in their radical distance from verbalization. Operating outside the strictures and commitments that attach to verbal meanings, such gestures can inflect, displace, modulate, emphasize, override, contradict or evade what’s said around them in ways not available to spoken utterance. Or they can block language completely, call a halt and insist – silently from outside the field of speech — on silence.

Gesture alongside speech. Gesticulation is the more or less involuntary, seemingly random and meaningless movements of the hands, arms, torso, face, and head accompanying speech. Gesticulatory movement and the phrase it accompanies  exhibit a shared dynamic, they rise, peak, and fall together to within a consciously imperceptible few hundredths of a second. This linking of gesture and phrase is neither without sense nor fortuitous. Gesticulatory gestures and verbal narration reflect each other at various linguistic and discursive levels. Thus, the semantic content of the narration, for example, might match, literally or figuratively the shape of a gesture: a twist of the finger correlated with the mention of a spiral staircase, an outlined rectangle for a window of opportunity, etc. Or a backward/forward hand movement might accompany the narration of past/future events. Other types of gesture function meta-linguistically, such as signaling a jumping out of the frame, or changing the genre of the narrative; others accompany a change in point of view, or the introduction of a new character into the story. And so on.

Gesticulation’s significance lies in the simultaneity of phrase and gesture. It means that the two are parallel, co-temporal activities: neither precedes the other, neither can have been created or conceived within the flow of utterance as secondary to the other. In particular, gesticulation cannot be taken to service what is being said; it is not invoked, consciously or otherwise, by the speaking intelligence to expand, clarify, gloss, or enhance a thought formulated in words and conceived prior to it. Rather the two must be understood as reciprocally determined, as processes that have co- evolved along two distinct representational paths. Gesticulated narrative speech  being the result of what McNeill calls a dialectic of the word stream – “linear, segmental, analytic” — and the gestural apparatus – “imagistic, holistic, and synthetic”.(McNeill 1992, 2005) This suggests, since vision and movement long preceded the advent of human speech, that a verbally ‘expressed’ thought might start life as a visuo-kinetic body image, a multiply sensed, internal mobility of the body, a pre- or proto thought, undetached from its neurological matrix and not yet disciplined into ‘thought’ and articulated as a verbal-gestural coupling. A becoming of verbal thought that evokes Deleuze’s account of the coming into being of visual thought as “an unknown body which we have in the back of our heads, like the unthought in thought, the birth of the visible which is still hidden from view.” (1986201) As an embodied constituent of the thought which is ‘expressed’, gesticulation “is not only a display of meaning but is part of the act of constructing meaning itself, adding a ‘material carrier’ that helps bring meaning into existence … .” (McNeill 1992) Impossible, then, to understand thought, to think its origins and its dynamics not to say its horizons, as if it could be detached from gesture.

Gesture inside speech. The third type of gesture is the audible body movements which constitute speech: gestures of the voice itself. Speech involves suites of interconnected movements of the lips, tongue, cheeks, jaw, glottis, vocal chords, larynx, diaphragm, lungs. These identifiable and repeatable patterns of body parts are gestures; auditory as distinct from visual, but gesture nonetheless. Moreover,  not only is the production of speech gestural but so is its comprehension: “Surprisingly”, as evolutionary neurologist Terrence Deacon remarks, “auditory processing of speech sounds does not appear to be based on extracting basic  acoustic parameters of the signal, as a scientist might design a computer to do, before mapping them onto speech sounds. Speech analysis appears designed instead to predict which oral-vocal movements produced them and ignore the rest.” (1997,

14) We listen, it seems, not to speech as isolatable sonic entities but to the movements of the body causing them; we focus on what happens between the sounds, to the dynamics of their preparatory phases, pauses, holds, accelerations, fallings away, and completions; the very features of gestures we attend when we are perceiving them. In a certain sense, we listen to speech-sounds as signs of their gestural origins, as a physician listens to the sounds a patient’s heart makes in order to analyse the movements causing them.

 Speech combines gestures of two kinds issuing from independent sources. The short, rapid, discrete sound packets – words – controlled by the cortex and the longer, slower waves of prosody or tone controlled by the limbic system. The first presides over signification – syntactically-coded meanings of reference and sense, the second witnesses physical presence and projects affect and force. They are independent, a single tone can underlie many words, the same words can be uttered with different tones. In speech the two kinds of gesture — symbolic words and embodied tone – form a unified and seamless whole.

Writing Speech

The alphabetic writing of speech splits this unit, separating speech into the words spoken, which it notates, from their tone which it omits.: symbolic discourse in the absence of vocal dynamics. The effect is one of disembodiment.  Understood neurologically, writing delivers cortical meaning shorn of midbrain affect. The absence is the phrasing, the intonation, the musicality, the rhythm, the volume and emphasis, the rise and fall of pitch, the fallings away and accelerations, the pauses, gaps, hesitations, the anticipations, elisions, silences, elongations, repetitions, and contractions of the voice. What is “announced by voice without even the mediation of articulate speech”, Adriana Cavarero observes, “communicates the elementary givens of existence.” (2005,8) In short, alphabetically written discourse necessarily lacks any connection to the affect of a speaking body and as such is a ready vehicle for the creation of incorporeal agencies and entities.

Though alphabetic writing can serve notational purposes not confined to the writing of speech, it is in relation to speech that its horizon and the metaphysical work it performs are to be found: the absented un-notatable body haunts writing. Whatever may be the nature of spacing or writing in general, alphabetic writing is tied to spoken language, since it it is predicated as an algorithm on the possibility of being read, of being able to be uttered and pronounced as speech. (This is not the case with non-alphabetic forms such as, for example, mathematical writing which, though it can be ‘read’ aloud by the reading of names attached to its signs, functions independently of any such voicing.) With alphabetic writing it was precisely the demand for reading aloud that punctuation — orthographic items from periods, commas, question marks to parentheses, dashes, ellipses, colons, quote marks, and other items — was invented to satisfy. But all these marks, though they make certain basic logical and rhetorical aspects of spoken meanings available to the reader, perform only a fragment of those performed by prosody. Other than these the alphabet conveys no prosodic affect. A qualification: handwriting can convey certain affective states and characteristics of the writer and the use of typefaces in printed texts is an affective resource powerfully used in advertising and comic art. But these exceptions do not disable alphabetic writing’s fundamental shortfall. The solution, from the alphabet’s inception, was the creation of literacy — textual practices distributed along the two poles of poetry and prose: the first, honouring sonic values through a mimesis of vocal affect, the second working syntactically by transducing vocality into textual forms through devices of convention and style. Observe that each time prosodic effects are transduced into prose and projected through syntactical means, the texts of written discourse become longer, more  wordy and internally intricate. As a consequence their interpretation becomes more open to further augmentation than the speech it is coding (or that which can be read from it), since what in speech is a co-occurrence, a simultaneity of words-with- prosody, becomes sequential and linearized in writing. And so it goes, text without end; always the edge of writing is occupied by an incomplete transduction of prosody and always the recovery of some full — prosodically complete — meaning, affect, significance or purpose is deferred; a potential infinity of deferrence. In theory. In practice, one stops at some point of sufficient meaning and prosodic recuperation long before death by excessive length intervenes. Derrida’s message of endless deferral of meaning (which, by his practice, is articulated within alphabetic writing and which, by his insistence, is necessarily indifferent philosophically to any extra- textual intervention or external – embodied — source of closure) is thus an effect of (understanding matters from within) alphabetic writing. An effect built into the alphabet’s asymptotic relation to the capture of prosody, an inevitable consequence  in other words of its inability to code the gestures inside the voice except by the addition of more prosodically denuded word signs.

This disjunction of words from their prosody, which presents ‘speech’ (i.e. speech virtualized as alphabetic inscription) as the expression of disembodied thought detached from its affective dimension was of course writing’s spectacular achievement. It allowed the alphabet to cut words loose from the place, time, context, circumstances, voice, gestures, presence, manner of utterance and  mortality of the one who speaks them. Neurologically, such virtualized speech issues from — gives rise to, allows to come into being and gives subsequent autonomy to –

– a disembodied cortex; for it is precisely the cortex’s connection to the midbrain and so-called limbic regions that produces the words-plus-prosody amalgam; a link which the autonomous presence of the de-prosodized alphabetically written word cuts.iii In this way, alphabetic writing enacts a transcendental escape from the body, whose presence within thought it renders invisible. As a result it contributes to an ontology of abstract, invisible, disembodied entities. In particular, to the idea of God — the monobeing Jahweh. It does this not by inventing it as an object of thought, but by operating as a vehicle or machine for the dissemination of an invisible,

transcendental difference without which no such God can be understood to exist. The alphabet in other words furnishes the presence of a divine absence, not by representing or alluding to it as subject matter (though it does that endlessly) or invoking it reflexively within itself (though it does that too: “… The word was with God, the word was God”), but through direct performance. (Rotman 2008) By mistaking itself for the inscription of speech, writing constantly renders invisible the limbic body and foregrounds the cortex as the source of a thinking, affect-free self.

But digital technology is transforming our relation to the alphabet. The question within the present electronic upheaval is no longer one of of notation and inscriptions readable by the unaided eye. Digital technology has already changed the terms here, building into ‘notation’ the means by which it is read and processed. Digitality, in other words, adds its own layer of material semiotics which embeds ‘writing’ and notation into a more extensive idea of ‘capture’. Just as photography captures  (slices of) visual scenes, the phonograph captures (a fragment of) sound, and writing capture/notates (the words of) spoken language, so digital technology offers the means of capturing (the surface) motion of a moving body. The result is a set of juxtaposed differences at work within any idea of what it might mean for a medium  to omit or capture or allow the reproduction of gesture. In the present context this prompts a question: Could the digital capture of motion be about to effect a transformation as radical and far-reaching for the body’s gestural semiotics as photography, phonography and writing accomplished for its visual, sonic and linguistic semiotics? Could bringing (a newly digitized and objectified) gesture out from under the shadow of the spoken word install a new order of body signification? Without claiming (which would be absurd) that gesture could rival the medium of speech, it is undeniable that gesture is on the ascendancy, that in some sense  certain kinds of silence and the saying of nothing, achievements of a newly valorized but once marginalized semiotic body, are poised to come into prominence, are already in fact being gestured toward. Or better, are in a constant state of arriving, since the saying of nothing, becoming mute, is a never-ending business of creating a wordless interior to speech, that is, of inhabiting the outside of utterance. To achieve the body without organs of speech, it is necessary first to dumb it, de-organize it, divest the body of speech, silence it, so that, in the presence of, but no longer governed by, the speakable, it may become the field of other productions, other desires, be alive to other semiotics — here the gestural — that inscribed transcendentally troped, alphabetically written speech is only too pleased to elide. Becoming mute is becoming infant, acceeding to human pre-speech, a return to, or re-negotiation of an earlier being, except that what is involved in such a move is not a literal ‘return’ or regression, but a reconfiguration of the present/future by altering its genesis. The result would be a quasi- or neo-primitiveness; a cultural neoteny where future adults come to resemble (re-assemble) their ancestral young. Ontologically, the dislocation of alphabetic writing by digital technology allows different actualizations of our virtual body to come into being.


Amaral, Julio Rocha do and Oliveira, Jorge Martins de (accessed May 2009). “The Center of Emotions” Brain and Mind http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n05/mente/limbic_i.htm

Barthes, Roland 1977. Image-Music-Text (Translated Stephen Heath). London: Fontana/Collins

Cavarero, Adriana 2005. For more than one voice: Toward a Philosphy of Vocal Expression. (Translatated with an introduction by Paul Kottman). Stanford: Stanford U. Press

Deacon, Terrence 1997. The Symbolic Species: the Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton

Deleuze, Gilles 1986. Cinema 2: the Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (Minneapolis: U. of Minneapolis Press).

Deleuze, Gilles 1990. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia U. Press)

Dunbar, Robin 1996. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press

Lane, Harlan 1984. What the Mind Hears: a History of the Deaf. New York: Random House

Mafesoli, Michel 1996. The Time of the Tribes: the Decline of Individualism. (Translated Don Smith). London: Sage Publications

Mafesoli, Michel 1993. The Shadow of Dionysus: a Contribution to the Study of the Orgy (Translated Cindy Linse and Mary Palmquist). Albany: SUNY Press

McNeil, David 1992. Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought. Chicago: Chicago U. Press

McNeil, David 2005. Gesture and Thought. Chicago: Chicago U. Press

Olson, David 1994. The World on Paper. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press Rotman, Brian 2008. Becoming Beside Ourselves: the Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham: Duke U. Press

Rotman, Brian 2009 “Gesture and the ‘I’ Fold” Parallax (to appear)

i  See chapter 2 of Mafesoli 1996 and Mafesoli 1993 for this understanding of puissance and the body outside speech.

ii  For an exploration of gesture and self-enunciation in relation to speech and other media, see Rotman 2009.

iii One might understand this as an orthographic transposition of a pre-frontal lobotomy. Certainly, descriptions of the speech of recipients of this procedure — “In their words or attitudes, no traces of affection could be detected.” (Amaral and Oliveira) – resonate with how we perceive words devoid of all prosody.

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