Gesture and the ‘I’ Fold Parallax, 15 (4), 68-82
The behavioral repertoire of living forms is ﬁlled with gestures of self-enunciation such as songbird calls, peacock tail-waving, wolf howls, ﬁreﬂy signals, insect stridulation and numerous other animal movements charted by Darwin in the Descent of Man. Such displays, pointings, announcings and signallings – gestures directing attention to the one gesturing – long antedate any form of human or proto-human ‘I’. Reason enough to suspect that the question of the ‘I’ – its possibilities and forms, its ontogenesis – might be interestingly if not intimately related to gesture. A suspicion in no way lessened by gesture’s role in hominization and the psychic mirroring of the other that initiates the matrix of personhood, witnessed in the proffered breast, expressions of the face, innumerable tactile and haptic gestures of nurture, control and communion, eye-contact and averted gaze, mutual turn-taking, pointing and the oral gestures of motherese which induct the infant into human speech.
Certainly, gesture is a crucial element of human semiosis, at the heart of diverse social and cultural practices. Anthropologically, the suites of repeated gestures underpin and perpetuate ritual experiences, collective ceremonies and enunciations including the numerous motilities and practices of the body prescribed for their adherents by secular and religious institutions. Aesthetically, performance arts such as dance, music and song deploy gesture – choreographed compositions of visuo- kinetic and sonic movements of the body – as their principal semiotic vehicle. Theatrical art is predicated in its entirety on the staging of gestures – from classical forms to Berthold Brecht’s post Aristotelean concept of gestus to Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty in which ‘gesture … instead of serving as a decoration, an accompaniment of thought, instead causes its movement’,1 to the contemporary forms of movement theatre. For Gilles Deleuze the cinema is before all else a ‘cinema of bodies’, an art form of the moving picture within which what he calls the
‘movement-image’, a spatio-temporal entity that is to be understood corporeally, precisely as a gesture, is the irreducible element of ﬁlmic thought. Architecturally, buildings, as soon as they exceed the purely instrumental, cannot but express ideas, display attitudes, make gestures in relation to their inhabitants and their surroundings. ‘Architecture’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted – ‘is a gesture, [it] expresses a thought, it makes one want to respond with a gesture’.2 Cognitively, gesture operates deep inside the supposedly disembodied universe of mathematical thought. Thus, Gilles Chatelet, for whom gestures spring from ‘disciplined mobilities of the body’, understands the diagrams that pervade mathematics, notably geometry, as frozen gestures that lodge inside the symbols of mathematics. By transmitting concepts in a pre-formalized – gestural – mode, they are the source of the embodied rumination behind mathematical thought: ‘when a diagram immobilizes a gesture in order to set down an operation, it does so by sketching a gesture’.3
But beyond gesture at work in mathematics, architecture, cinema, theatre and so on, it is most conspicuous as social gesture, the familiar mobilities of the body, so-called emblem gestures that ‘regulate and comment on the behavior of others, reveal one’s emotional states, make promises, swear oaths, insult, threaten’.4 These gestures of social life constitute an impossible to list 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, blowing a kiss, shrugging, clasping hands in prayer, smiling, turning the face and countless other visible, auditory and tactile productions of the semiotic body that permeate social life. 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. If emblems can be said to communicate, they do so enactively. Unlike signifying mediation ‘transmitting’ content, communicating and sharing information, what gestures ‘communicate’ is the fact and manner of their taking place. This allows them to open a middle in the all or nothing opposition between a sign and silence, an action and inaction: if you can’t do something, don’t do nothing, ‘at least’ – as we say – ‘make a gesture’.
For Giorgio Agamben the binary opposition of means and ends, producer and praxis ‘which paralyses morality’, is precisely what gesture is able to overcome. ‘What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured. The gesture, in other words, opens the sphere of ethos’.5 Certainly, gestures are events. They signify by happening, their meaning is in their taking place. Thus, gestures 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 image the performative pole of language, projecting force, power and affect as against language’s constative – signifying and informational – functions. Emblems have been considered as ‘speech acts’, suggesting that their content can, at least in principle, be parsed in spoken language and their regulatory functions subsumed within spoken rhetoric. But this is at best a partial truth. Many common gestures such as giving the ﬁnger, a wink, a bowed head, hands held in prayer, a shrug either have non equivalent, semantically disparate 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 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. Though such language-blocking gestures by no means capture gesture in the large, they represent for Agamben the essence of gesture in relation to speech or rather the necessary absence of speech – in the guise of the ineffable, and he accords gesture a uniquely privileged purchase on the limits of philosophical writing:
Because being-in-language is not something that can be said in sentences, the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to ﬁgure something out in language, it is always a gag in the proper meaning of the term, indicating ﬁrst of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as in the sense of the actor’s improvisation meant to compensate a loss of memory or an inability to speak.
Gesture as a gag in the primary, speech silencing sense, is of course ancient: an unnamed muse declares ‘I am silent as my hand moves rhythmically in a way that enhances the spirit, with a nod I announce a speaking silence’.6 Agamben continues:
The Wittgensteinian deﬁnition of the mystic as the appearing of what cannot be said is literally a deﬁnition of the gag. And every great philosophical text is the gag exhibiting language itself, being-in- language itself as a gigantic loss of memory, as an incurable speech defect.7
But if this rightly accords gesture an important though by no means its only metalinguistic role (it is patently not ‘essentially always’ a gag) it introduces at the same time a confusion of media. Leaving aside the preoccupation with the early Wittgenstein’s call for a mystic silence, there is an untroubled conﬂation of writing and speaking, sentences and utterances, at work in Agamben’s formulation. One can ask: Is not being able to ﬁgure out in writing, ‘in sentences’, what it means to be-in- (written)-language, to inhabit a textual universe, really the same defect, curable or otherwise, as not being able to ﬁgure out in speech, via an utterance, what it means to be-in-(spoken)-language? More pointedly: what might be at stake, what metaphysical consequences might there be, in writing about speech as if it were writing? In particular, in ignoring what speech does that writing cannot and vice versa as this is manifest in the difference between the saying and the writing of ‘I’?
Gesture – whether in mathematics, dance, cinema or language – is a mediating term, the vector linking thought with codes of meaning and expression, the path along which the body thinks and is thought from outside itself. Our interest here is the nexus of gesture and language, one formulation of which understands language as gesture: ‘Wittgenstein’s ﬁnest insight [ … ] is precisely that language is a gestural form: to speak is to gesture [gestire], that is, to manage the body [gestire il corpo]; he taught us that language is all there within the body’.8 Gesture performs this role as the passage between thought and language via a triple intimacy with speech, namely gesture before speech as its precursor medium; gesture alongside speech as a co-evolved form of coding; and gesture deep inside speech as its embodied mobility.9
First intimacy: gesture before speech
Speculation about gesture as a precursor to speech goes back at least to Condillac and his contemporaries, and there are numerous current theories that locate the origin of language in gesture.10 Of particular interest here is a neuro-biological account of the evolution of human symbol-using capacity due to Terrence Deacon. Language, he observes, did not arrive out of thin air, for no reason. Symbolic communication arose to solve a problem. It was driven, he argues, by the need to regulate reproductive behavior in order to beneﬁt from group hunting practices. This required the establishment of alliances and social contracts that only some form of symbol, albeit rudimentary and experimental, could represent. Once initiated, however, such rudimentary ‘words’ would have become more prevalent and complex by a process of bio-cultural or Baldwinian evolution. The brain’s capacity to signify and the cultural environs in which it operates co-evolved in a series of feedback loops. Changes in the newborn’s brain affect the range of cognitive and gesturo-haptic abilities available to the infant, and so determine which features of language it is capable of learning and which not (as well as affecting the length of infant dependency). These exert a selective pressure on the brain to develop along certain lines, which further impose restrictions and facilitate semiotic possibilities
of spoken and gestural communication available to the newborn and so on. The outcome of this co-evolutionary cycle, iterated over an unknown number of growingly less dumb (in the literal sense) generations, is fully symbolic human speech. The neuro-linguistic itinerary of this cycle which eventuates symbolic reference that Deacon maps out is complex. Symbols emerge recursively as neurological tokens – as paths of virtual links between index-based referential actions, essentially acts of pointing by words at objects together with word-word clusters – which act like ‘buoys indicating an otherwise invisible best course, they mark a speciﬁc associative path, by following which we reconstruct the implicit symbolic reference’.11
Wittgenstein’s understanding of language as gestural pivots on pointing, indicating and showing, projecting/afﬁrming meanings by an outward linking of spoken words to the objects and actions of the world. Speech refers and symbolizes. Absent these, meaning and signiﬁcation can undoubtedly occur but nothing properly linguistic is possible. Wittgenstein urged this truth about the linguistic sign by demonstrating how language is founded on, furthers itself and achieves meaning through the use – not least their ostensive, demonstrative capacity – of words. The gesture-word nexus realized by pointing has bio-social roots. Wittgenstein’s philosophical formulations are after-the-fact analyses of earlier gestural acts, indicating and pointing of a primitively constitutive, species-wide practice. In this connection, we note gesture – in the form of head-pointing, directed eye-gaze, the proffered breast, an entire suite of facial expressions and tones of voice, turn-taking cues and a slew of gesturo-haptic acts of management, nurture and communication – is the principal medium of hominization, and thereby the means through which the human infant is inducted into the social community of language. Comparison of the development of verbal and signed languages conﬁrms a fundamental difference between two kinds of pointing: the ostensive kind just mentioned (nouns and verbs) and the psychic (ultimately more important) interpersonal kind directing attention to the
speaker/signer or to the addressee, enshrined in personal pronouns. What distinguishes them relative to the speech/gesture nexus is that unlike ostension psychic pointing cannot operate in the absence of speech. In fact, it requires speech at a comparatively complex stage able to direct attention not to things outside speech but to ‘abstract constructs’, items only meaningful in the presence of speech; speciﬁcally, ‘the roles that the protagonists of the act of enunciation play in discourse’, which is why infants and their signing equivalents, though they enter language through pointing, are unable to point to themselves or each other.12
The two modes of semiosis here, indexical and symbolic, alternate and penetrate each other. The pre-linguistic self, the unutterable Me of infancy13 (ontogenetic heir to the indexical self-perception of pre-linguistic homo gesticulator) and the symbolic spoken ‘I’ of language co-exist for all talking beings as an ever-present doubling, a duality of self. The experience of this co-presence of the uttered ‘I’ and its indexical precursor/companion might, Deacon suggests, provide a biology of ghostliness, a natural origin for the psychological salience and subjective reality of non-mortal, non-natural entities: ‘The symbolic representation of self’ – he says – ‘provides a perspective on that curious human intuition that our minds are somehow independent of our bodies; an intuition [ … ] translated into beliefs about disembodied spirits and souls that persist beyond death’.14 Thus, even though language allows an escape from the upper reaches of what Merlin Donald calls the ‘mimetic stage’ of cognitive development,15 from gestural self-enunciation into the symbolic domain of oral thought, its indexical root is present as a resonance within utterance. Put differently, the cognitive behavior/experience we call ‘mind’ is immanent in nature.
Second intimacy: gesture alongside speech
Gesticulating – the more or less involuntary, seemingly random and meaningless movements of the hands, arms, torso, face, head in evidence over any stretch of narrative speech is, it appears from empirical studies, intimately attached – neurologically yoked – to the words it accompanies: gesticulation and phrase 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, semantic content of the narration, for example, might match, literally or ﬁguratively, the shape of a gesture: a twist of the ﬁnger at the same time as a spiral staircase or corkscrew is mentioned, 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.16
Gesticulation, long regarded as a haphazard, undisciplined species of meaningless body movement, proves on the contrary to consist of movements tightly bound at semiotically signiﬁcant junctures to the structure, dynamics, moment-to- moment status and the semantic content of speech. And yet, in a restricted, practical sense, the contingency is real: gesticulation is marginal. It contributes nothing of substance to speech: we talk on the phone, listen to the radio and voice mail, in the absence of any perceived gesticulation, with semiotic but negligible semantic loss.
What then can gesticulation reveal about the gestural dimension of speech? The answer lies in their simultaneity: verbal phrase and gesticulation must be completely 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 in some way enhance a thought formulated in words and conceived prior to it. Rather the two must be understood either as different but parallel realizations or responses to some pre-verbal gestural thing that precedes them, or as ‘reciprocal determinations’, a co-evolutionary process manifest 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’.17 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, yet to be detached from its neurological matrix and disciplined into ‘thought’ and realized as a verbal-gestural coupling. A genesis of verbal narrational thought that evokes Deleuze’s account of the coming into being of a cinematic – 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’.18 Gesticulation, then, is an embodied constituent of the thought which is expressed. The issue of materiality, McNeil insists, is central: ‘Via materialization, meaning “inhabits” the speaker’. Thus, what is involved is not the same as a coding or presentation of a prior meaning: ‘Gesture and speech, as material carriers of meanings provide an alternative to representation’.19 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.
Third intimacy: gesture inside speech
The assemblage of disciplined, sonic mobilities, the diverse gestures of the voice that are an integral part of all utterance constitute the tone or prosody of speech. Tone includes speech’s cadence and volume, its rise and fall of pitch, its musicality, its degrees of emphasis, hesitation and anticipation, its elisions, silences and suppressions, its elongations, sighs, contractions, accelerations, undulations and the innumerable variations in intensity that punctuate and modulate its ﬂow. Plainly, tone is central to the experience, the feel and affect of speech. It is at the heart of the lyric and without it human song would be impossible. But poetry and music aside, what is tone’s connection to ‘I’?
The speaking apparatus of tongue, lips, cheeks, glottis, vocal chords, larynx, diaphragm and lungs produces two kinds of sound: rapid, short, more or less discrete sonic packets – syllables, words, phrases – and slower, longer analogue waves of prosody threading through them. The two, though seamlessly joined and uttered together as inseparable halves of the same semiotic event, are governed by different neurological regimes: the evolutionarily more recent neo-cortex presides over words and their syntax whereas tone is managed by the ancient limbic systems of the midbrain. Crudely, words serve cognition, they have to do with the representational, signifying axis of language’s mediation of thought, whereas tone, equally crudely, has to do with its affect. Linguists, for whom the former – speech’s semantic content: what is said, the meaning of the words – is the primary focus, categorize tone as a secondary, paralinguistic phenomenon, as merely the manner of delivery – how what is said is said. This privileging of the signifying over the prosodic axis by linguistic science (consonant with the wider cultural ranking of ‘reasoned’ thought over affect, ‘mind’ over the emotive body and so on) marginalizes the role of tone. As a result it is uninterested in the affective force of speech and in questions of individuation, corporeal presence and the body’s agency that are inseparable from tone.
Tone, the means by which speech projects affect and witnesses the body – its feeling, passion, mood, desire and emotional attitude – is doubly presupposed within the very possibility of human speech. First, all speech is predicated upon a same-other circuit: utterance demands an always-there addressee, a like-minded listener who is an embodied turn-taking other, a matching being capable of speech. ‘Without reprise, thus without response, the voice would remain in itself. A voice in itself is not a voice’.20 It is tone which conveys this demand and registers its satisfaction. If tone establishes a relation of shared, two-way con-tact, it is also a principle means of human individuation. Vocal gesture (along with facial expression) is one of the earliest media, both in an evolutionary and developmental sense, by which humans have told and tell each other apart as singular individuals. Hence the term ‘voice’ to signify the unique personal style, the singularity of a poet or of a writer’s prose. In addition to witnessing the body in these ways tone evinces embodiment at a virtual level. Just as speech in general virtualizes gesture – utterance as tele-gestural, gesture at a distance – so tone virtualizes the haptic gesture of touch, allowing one to speak of being ‘moved’ and ‘touched’ by language (separately from its semantic, purely signifying content). According to Peirce’s deﬁnition of virtual X as
‘something which is not X but has the efﬁciency (virtus) of X’, we can say that tone is virtual touch, touch at a distance, it can have the virtus of touch – we are soothed by soothing words – but is plainly not touch.21 Thus, self-touch, the event of a body touching itself, appears as virtual speech, as the tone of the spoken ‘I’. Vocal gestures, then, are tele-haptic. Tone is a deeply embodied form of virtual contact, a precursor of contemporary digital modes of virtual gesture – present in the metaphorics of long-distance telephone ads ‘reach out and touch someone’ and in more complex forms such as virtual navigation, tele-presence, tele-agency and so on,22 of which more below.
Given tone’s relation to the body it would appear impossible to separate the two. How could words be uttered tonelessly, devoid of all internal movement? From what has been said, speech in the absence of tone, were such a thing possible, would be completely without affect, neutral, a de-embodied source of ﬂat presence, a ghost voice projected into the void, indifferent to the presence or otherwise of an addressee. Again, if speech could exist without tone, it would project not only a de-embodied voice but one absent all individuating characteristics; the bearer of such toneless speech would be a singularity, a sui generis sonic agency, unidentiﬁable in the auditory sense of being distinguishable as an individual speaking being among others. Where could such an incorporeal voice, an aural presence which ‘uttered’ speech without affect, speech denuded of interior gesture, come from? How would one imagine it?
We are led to writing and the question: What does it mean to ‘write down’ speech, to mediate oral life and its gestures by means of a scriptural apparatus? What does the vast network of alphabetic texts that articulate Western intellectual discourse do to/with speech and the forms of thought appropriate to it? Does writing capture speech? True, alphabetic texts internalize verbal narratives, reproduce ﬁgures of speech, mimic utterance, ask oral-styled questions, absorb protocols of debate and conversation and, before all else, are potential speech, readable/interpretable aloud as speech. Also true, within our script-based logos, speech is covered over by the writing of it. Or to reverse it, writing appears as a form of speech. But the two are of course fundamentally separate: writing re-mediates speech. It is speech virtualized: something not speech but which – at least within a textual universe privileging speech’s ability to transmit cognitive and intellectual content, speech dominated by language’s signifying axis – has the virtus or efﬁciency of speech. Texts are virtual speech acts. Media-logically, writing’s relation to speech replays speech’s relation to haptic gesture: as voice projects touch in virtual form at a distance, so the written text projects speech at a virtual remove, at a distance beyond and after itself. Might then the unbridgeable difference between the gestural Me and spoken ‘I’ be repeated? Is there a corresponding gulf between the ‘I’ of speech and its inscribed form?
As one knows, alphabetic writing does not ‘write down’ speech. It neither re-presents nor records spoken language. It inscribes the words but not their tone, the signifying import but not the vocal affect. It cuts speech loose from the voice, replacing an analogue spoken stream of gestures which unfolds and is modulated in time and has a character and intensity by a sequence of ﬁxed discrete phonemes. Unable to notate sonic effects beyond syllables, the alphabet is deaf to all that tone furnishes – not least the agency and affective presence of the body within speech. As a consequence, the medium of alphabetic inscription facilitates the possibility of imagining an un-embodied and affectless communicating agency. A possibility able to be realized in the writing of ‘I’.
‘I’ is a reﬂective enunciation. Like any enunciation it takes place within a medium; its character and the psychic possibilities it makes available are medium speciﬁc:
there are as many different ‘I’s as there are media – a dance ‘I’, a ﬁlm ‘I’, a music ‘I’, a theatre ‘I’, a speech ‘I’, a written ‘I’, an ‘I’ within the medium of gesture and so on. ‘I’ is reﬂective construct, a so-called self-enunciation. To re-ﬂect is to bend back, to fold something onto itself. Folding engenders an ontological novelty, it brings a previously non-existent inside/outside difference into being. In psychic terms, reﬂection introduces an interiority, an interior space of consciousness and subjectivity. A fold is produced by an animate form touching itself, either via infraceptive (kinesthetic/proprioceptive) monitoring and internal-to-the-brain self-contact, or extraceptively through the myriad gestures of self-touching and self-survey sentient life-forms engage in. In fact, it would seem that consciousness itself comes into being the moment a (mediated) form of awareness – human, animal or otherwise – folds back on itself. For the ‘I’ it is the medium wherein it is enunciated that folds back onto itself, referencing or indexing its own user. A user who, despite the priority built into the term, does not precede the medium in question, but is in fact constituted as a psyche, as an enunciating self, within the ﬁeld of subjectivities the medium makes available.23
What of the fold in the medium of speech and oral consciousness, the space of semiotic difference introduced into speech when a speaker utters (as opposed to writes) ‘I’? Spoken and written ‘I’ are radically distinct: they have different relations to embodiment, operate differently in their milieus and preside over distinctive forms of subjectivity. The classic linguistic deﬁnition of the former ‘“I” refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is uttered and it designates its speaker’24 – has no parallel for the ‘I’ of a text. There is no unique act of individual discourse, no physical body tied to it and no necessary connection (let alone identity) between the one who may have written, or caused to have written, ‘I’ and the one or thing or ﬁction that might or might not be designated by it. In short, the written ‘I’ though it has the virtus of the spoken form in many of the latter’s deployments, is never the uttered ‘I’ but always a virtual form of it. But what if this difference could be nulliﬁed? If the actual and the virtual, speaker and writer, coalesced and became indistinguishable? The result would be an ontologically paradoxical being, an agency, who fused the embodied ‘I’ of speech with the ﬂoating, disembodied presence of the textual ‘I’: an actual being with a virtual – toneless – voice, a virtual being who speaks aloud. Such a being would be doubly uncanny. As we saw, lacking tone, its voice would be that of a ghost, a disembodied agency, projecting its speech into the void, indifferent to the presence or otherwise of an addressee. And as the bearer of such toneless speech, the being would be anonymous, a singular, sui generis agency unable to be physically identiﬁed or individuated.
Lacking witness to the speaker’s corporeality, alphabetic texts are as a result amenable to the embrace of disembodied entities. In the history of the West two ghost agencies, semiotic beings ﬁtting this description of an ontological hybrid have emerged. Each the result of an encounter with alphabetic writing which, though in use earlier, came into its own in a deﬁnitive sense during the sixth century BCE. One was the Hebrew creation of Jahweh, the source of the world, whose word is recorded in the Torah, the other the Greek creation of a disembodied psyche, separable from the soma, the source of spoken thought. The ﬁrst established the West’s ethico- theological horizons, the second its philosophico-discursive matrix. The origin of each is precisely a result of writing’s omission of tone as this is felt (or rather not felt) when the spoken (gestural) and written (a-gestural) forms of ‘I’ are fused into a single ghost entity.25
Of course, alphabetic texts are not without affect, what they lack is the affect proper to speech and when they are delivered by someone other than their author, as in funeral orations and theatrical performances, reveal the need for affective augmentation. As a result, early recognition of the disappearance of tone from alphabetic writing prompted the invention of rhetoric in the form of reading practices and an infrastructure of prose and poesis, able to remedy the shortfall. The result was the development of literature in the widest sense, an apparatus able to endow texts with their own kind of affect: written, disembodied, virtual affect induced by lettered gestures. Literature, as is evident from early Israelite and Greek texts, was (and remains so) unaware of its complicity with the metaphysical effects writing is heir to in its capacity as a medium. What Clifford Geertz says about art forms, they ‘generate and regenerate the very subjectivity they pretend only to display’26 is no less true of text forms – literary, philosophical or otherwise.
Evidently, the gulf between the spoken and written ‘I’ lies outside speech and writing. Nothing able to be uttered as embodied, toned speech, and no purely textual articulation, closes it. Only something quasi-oral and quasi-textual, a God who speaks-writes or a mental ghost who writes-thinks, it seems, can ﬁll it. If alphabetic texts facilitate belief in disembodied agencies they do so precisely when they are conceived under a pervasive, unperceived (con)fusion of speaking and writing. In so doing their authors/readers are necessarily unaware of what might be at stake in covering speech over by writing, in absorbing utterance into the text, as if thinking in speech were somehow a special case, an inferior version of thinking in alphabetic writing. A conception which occludes the perception of alphabetic writing as a medium. The work that the medium performs across Western culture – theological, literary, philosophical, psychological – brought into relief by but not conﬁned to the metaphysics of writing-saying ‘I’, intensiﬁed with the advent of printing. Particularly, with the construction of what one might call ‘lettered selves’: ‘Since the Middle Ages [ … ] one cannot avoid being described, identiﬁed, certiﬁed, and handled – like a text. Even in reaching out to become one’s own ‘self’, one reaches out for a text’.27 Or the reverse: a text reaches out for and interpellates a self.
Either way, the disembodied agencies – Jahweh, psyche and others – together with the lettered human selves which give them credence, rely on and re-inscribe the alphabet’s metaphysics. Or rather, they do so whenever they are deployed as if the alphabet were a transparent medium, a neutral conveyor of (spoken) thought. We see from this how one might begin to respond to Agamben’s assertion of not being able to state being-in-language in a sentence. Clearly, one must ﬁrst undo his conﬂation of utterance and sentence, of being-in-speech and being-in-writing, if the ancient metaphysical move behind Jahweh and psyche is not to be once again silently folded into alphabetic discourse. One is also obliged to ask who – what sort of self, how constructed and mediated, what manner of subjectivity, presided over by what ‘I’ – is not able to ‘state’ matters, in particular, whether the self doing the stating understands itself as being lettered or not. To pursue these questions would take us too far from the focus here.
The computational ‘I’
First homo gesticulator: meanings, practices and ceremonies mediated by individual/collective gesture including an indexical ‘I’ experienced through touching, pointing, visual display, dance and so on (ontogenic precursor of the speechless selves of human infants.) From this the slow, bio-cultural evolution of language and its culmination in the oral universe of homo loquans, human utterance as virtual gesture, the spoken ‘I’ as an irruption in gestural consciousness. Then, overnight, the capturing – virtualizing – of speech and the coming into being of homo scriptans, lettered selves inhabiting a universe of meanings, subjectivities and practices controlled and held in place by alphabetic discourse and its written ‘I’ since the the West’s inception.28 Now, challenging the alphabet’s dominance, the
emergence of a computational universe. Undoubtedly, we are undergoing a large- scale and radical transformation, a rupture in the traditional meaning of ‘human’. Long-held ideas of human ‘nature’, of the self and its enunciations, of subjectivity, of the human-technology nexus, of autonomy and agency, of communication, of the body and its mind, articulated over the course of nearly three millennia of alphabetic discourse, are being displaced – overhauled, disrupted, transformed – by technologies of the virtual.
This rupture is apparent in a clash of logics. The logic put in place by alphabetic writing is serial and monadic/atomic. Serial in a linguistic sense: sequentially ordered letters in sequentially ordered lines of text which project the temporal order of speech into a linear space; and notationally serial, where an initial abecadarium ordering of letters makes possible dictionaries, indexes and the numerous other devices of post- printing textual discourse. Monadic and atomistic because the alphabet notates meaningless phonemes, sound bits that are irreducible, self-contained and unrelated to anything outside themselves. Both these fundamental attributes of writing are nulliﬁed by the connectivity of computational networks. The logic of networks is parallel, and dispersive, it governs many actions at once not one after the other; and it is distributed, occurring at multiple sites and pointing outward to an indeterminate plurality rather than inward to an irreducible monad. Instead of a hermeneutics of texts it offers the aggregation and links of networks.
Alphabetic logic induces a lettered self-constructed through iterated reading/writing practices (not least in relation to a written ‘I’) which articulate, describe, characterize, project and stabilize it as a scriptive object, ﬁxed, bounded and unitary. If the model of the lettered self is an enclosed, windowless codex, its virtual analogue, a mobile network of open-ended alpha-numeric fragments interlaced with images (themselves operating according a logic of simultaneity), is internally and externally plural. The alphabetic psyche which conceived and represented itself as monadic, singular, self-sufﬁcient and autonomous stands against a dispersed assemblage in the computational logos, a psychic plurality that is multiple, no longer identical to itself and open to parallel sources of exterior subjectivity. What
in the textual logos was private, monadic and inwardly individuated is in the computational universe opened up and distributed into a self inseparable from media apparatuses and technologies of the virtual: the psyche can no longer be the singular, serial ‘one’, a scroll-codex-book-uniﬁed entity, that it thought itself – alphabetically wrote itself – to be. Despite its millennia-long hold on the textual logos, such an endogenously engendered and enclosed self is increasingly unstable within the electronic universe. If ‘Conditions of contemporary life might be understood as an intense exteriorization of intimacy’,29 it is also true that an intense interiorization is taking place, the process of outering is at the same time one of innering, whereby subjectivity is folded in from without. The result of this Mobius strip-like de-differntiation of inner and outer is an ever-greater erosion of the lettered self: its boundary made ever more porous, complex and multi-surfaced by emerging forms of electronic self-enunciation.
Each new communicational medium alters the spatial and temporal ratios circumscribing its predecessor. Contemporary media technologies, which are virtualizing the cultural infrastructure of alphabetic writing, re-arranging our lettered spatial and temporal relations, altering their ratios, contracting time into instantaneity and distance into co-presence, are engendering new interpretations of ‘closeness’, new forms of ‘contact’, of virtual touch.
One of the most important effects of massively multi-way instantaneous communications is pervasive proximity. We experience everyone to whom we are connected – and presumably everyone to whom we are potentially connected – as if they are exactly next to us. [ .. . ] The dominant sense in this world of pervasive proximity is no longer vision, despite the fact that many [ .. . ] of the portals to this world are screen-based. The dominant sense in this world is touch.30
The advent of new forms of body graphism such as technologies of motion capture which allow gesture to be mediated – detached, processed and rerouted – across a wide span of aesthetic and instrumental contexts from virtual theatre and multiple art practices to remote surgery, extends this from the sense of touch to gesture at large. Evidently, our modes of interface with communicational networks seem disposed to be articulated and experienced in terms of gesture and gesturo-haptic immersion: indeed, the principal arena of immersive experience is the internet itself, a medium which as Derrick de Kerckhove rightly insists is ‘not really amenable to sight as much as to touch. Navigating the web is a tactile affair’.31
Within the computational logos, then, self-enunciation will be experienced as a form of virtual contact, as a virtualization of the alphabetic ‘I’, with ‘virtual’ understood as speciﬁc to electronic media. In this it iterates the self-pointing behind its predecessor enunciatory practices, each of which emerges from the medium-speciﬁc communicational means – gestural, oral, textual – available to it within their respective logoi. In each case the ‘I’ is formed when the predominant medium folds back on itself. Observe, however, that the reﬂexive move seems not to occur immediately, at the outset of a medium’s deployment. Alphabetic writing was in use
for several centuries by both the Greeks and Israelites before a written ‘I’ came to be used and generate signiﬁcant consequences. And though the early history of human speech is unavailable, one knows that children are unable to say ‘I’ until some time after they have begun to speak. It seems that a medium needs to be comparatively normalized, to efface its ‘virtual’ status as a ﬁgure with respect to its predecessor and become instead the ground, before its users can fold the medium back on itself and achieve a stable and iterable ‘I’.
There are of course vast differences between the practices of self-pointing available to each medium, differences reﬂected in the radically distinct cognitive and experiential nature of gestural, spoken, written and networked selves. Despite these media speciﬁcities, however, there are certain underlying homologies, similar psychic phenomena which stem from their common originations. Thus, aside from gesture, each mediation is a re-mediation, a virtualization of its predecessor, a state of affairs that allows in each case two self-enunciations – the habitual or default self and its new, virtual form – to co-occur. Recall that in Deacon’s account such a duality, the co-presence of a pre-linguistic, gestural ‘I’, experienced as the default self and its spoken – virtual – form, was a possible origin of the belief in ghost entities separate from bodies. And, as we saw, an analogous effect occurred with the co-presence of the spoken and written ‘I’ which for the Greeks initiated the duality of a self composed of a default somatic self and a writing – virtual – psyche, and which for the scribes of the Torah, brought into being a god who both spoke-wrote ‘I’. Now, at the beginning of the computational era, the default is the lettered self of the alphabetic ‘I’ which confronts a still forming, embryonic and open-ended virtual ‘I’. We, here in the text, still lettered denizens of the alphabetic world, confront our virtual manifestations. We not only experience ‘everyone to whom we are connected [ .. . ] as if they are exactly next to us’, but increasingly experience ourselves in this manner: our actual, alphabetic selves are in pervasive proximity – internal and external – to their virtual counterparts; a proximity that increases in intensity as we engage in new, ever more intricate channels of electronic self-touching. Whether or not one describes this alphabetic/computational co-presence, its strange mixing and intermittent coalescing of the actual and the virtual, in the vocabulary of ghosts (and there are ghosts and ghost effect everywhere in the contemporary digital
scene),32 there is undeniably a new and uncanny psychic phenomenon, a psyche-
effect, emerging in the computational logos being constructed around (and inside) us. We are surely early in the process of folding the still ramifying digital media back onto themselves; still busy creating and beginning to exploit the phenomenological possibilities and metaphysical inducements of electronic self-enunciation. Begin- ning, in other more ecosystemic words, to explore the noo¨sphere, Vladimir Vernadsky’s term for the third stage of earth’s development after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and biosphere (biological life) to refer to the aware and conscious layer of the earth’s ecosystem. In any event, one might, after Nietzsche, invoke a plural psyche, a ‘subject as multiplicity’, behind, or rather as, the site of our corporeal encounter with the inherently plural and distributed face of electronic media. A psyche intrinsically multiple, uncannily folded into the space of the alphabetic logos, both lettered and computational, experienced as a self beside, parallel to, and in virtual contact with itself and the innumerable proximate others networked to it.
1 Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p.39.
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. C. H. von Wright, trans. Peter Winch (Blackwell: Oxford, 1980), p.22e.
3 Gilles Chatelet, Figuring Space: Philosophy, Mathematics, and Physics, trans. Robert Shaw and Muriel Zagha (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), p.9. Chatelet offers a complex and extensive archeology of mathematical thought as embodied meditation, principally in relation to geometry and the mathematization of space, in terms of diagrams and gestures. For a fuller description of his ideas see Brian Rotman, Becoming Beside Ourselves: the Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp.35-38 and references there.
4 David McNeill, Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p.64.
5 Giorgio Agamben, Means without Ends, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Casare Casarino (Minnea- polis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p.57.
6 From the Palatine Anthology, quoted in Alan
L. Boegehold, When a Gesture was Expected: a Selection of Examples from Archaic and Classical Greek Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.47.
7 Giorgio Agamben, Means without Ends, pp.59-60.
8 Antonio Negri, ‘It’s a Powerful Life: a Con- versation on Contemporary Philosophy’, Cultural Critique, 57 (2004), p.164.
9 In line with general usage, I write ‘language’ and ‘speech’ as synonyms. This is incorrect since gestural systems of communication used by the deaf, such as ASL, though not speech are certainly languages. In what follows I’ve allowed the context to eliminate any possible confusion.
10 There is a plethora of theories of the origin of language. Among contemporary accounts which locate it in gesture, besides Terrence Deacon (The Symbolic Species: the Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: Norton, 1997)) considered here, one might mention the very different approaches and frameworks of Armstrong et al (Gesture and the Nature of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni- versity Press, 1995)), Micahel C. Corbalis (From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002)) and Robin Dunbar (Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)). For two marvelously rich early modern encounters with the semiotics of gesture see John Bulwer, Pathomyotomia, or a Dissection of the Affections of the Minde (London, 1649), and Chirologia: or the Naturall Language of the Hand. Composed of the Speaking Motions and Discour- sing Gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or The Art of Manuall Rhetoricke. Consisting of the Naturall Expressions digested by art in the Hand as the chiefest Instrument of Eloquence (London, 1664).
11 Tim Lenoir, ‘Machinic Bodies, Ghosts, and Para-Selves: Confronting the Singularity with Brian Rotman’, Foreword to Brian Rotman, Becoming Beside Ourselves: the Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (Stanford: Stanford Uni- versity Press, 2008), p.xxi.
12 Elena Antinoro Pizzuto and Micaela Capobianco, ‘Is Pointing “just” Pointing: Unraveling the Complexity of Indexes in Spoken and Signed Discourse’, Gesture, 8:1 (2008), p.85.
13 What I’m calling the Me is a gross simpliﬁcation which lumps together the sequence of selves during infancy elaborated by Daniel Stern, The Interperso- nal World of the Infant: a view from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology (New York: Basic, 1985). The sequence – emergent self, core self, subjective self – that precedes the verbal self of speech are not stages, like Freud’s oral, anal, genital stages of sexuality, Stern emphasizes, but co-existent domains which, though each ‘prepares’ for its successor, continue to operate according to their own autonomous logic after the onset of speech.
14 Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species, p.454.
15 Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) and Merlin Donald, ‘Mimesis and the Executive Suite: Missing Links in Language Evolution’, in James R. Hurford et al, Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp.44-67.
16 For an illuminating analysis of the affective
political/ideological work of gesticulation and its auditory cognates as these are manifest in the speech of Ronald Reagan, see Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), pp.39-42.
17 See David McNeill, Hand and Mind.
18 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1989), p.201.
19 David McNeill, Gesture and Thought (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.104.
20 Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Answering for Sense’, trans. Jean-Christophe Cloutier, in A Time for the Humanities: Futurity and the Limits of Autonomy, eds James J. Bono, Tim Dean and Ewa Plonowska Ziarek (New York: Fordam University Press, 2008), p.86.
21 See Charles Saunders Peirce, ‘Virtual’, Dic- tionary of Philosophy and Psychology, ed. James Mark Baldwin (New York: Macmillan, 1902). An elaboration of Peirce’s deﬁnition of virtual X as well as its connection to Deleuze’s conceptualiz- ation of the virtual is to be found in my ‘Ghost Effects/Virtual X’, in Throughout: Art and Culture Emerging with Ubiquitous Computing, ed. Ulrik Ekman (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, to appear).
22 Besides being virtualized within speech as tone,
haptic gestures also inﬂect purely visual gestures: ‘Even communicative gestures that are purely performed “in the air” exhibit features that bear the mark of haptic communication: for instance, the deceleration that is required for the soft landing of a process’. Paul Brouissac, ‘The Optic, Haptic, and Acoustic Dimensions of Gesture: Evolutionary Signiﬁcance and methodological Implications’, conference paper, Berlin Gesture Center, Inter- disziplinares BGC-Kolloquium, 6 November 2006.
23 The fold is a crucial concept in the philosophical system of Gilles Deleuze, precisely as the making of an inside by folding the outside onto itself. And, not coincidentally, folding is a fundamental biological activity creating an inside within bodies, as part of their production, for example when the hollow sphere of embryonic cells enters itself (gastrulation), or when the neural tube is formed from a sheet of cells. See Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
24 Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971), p.226.
25 One might note here that Jahweh’s enunciation ‘I am’ is not without affect if we include what is conveyed by syntactical as opposed to vocal means: clearly the enunciation resounds with ‘being’. See chapter 5 of my Becoming Beside Ourselves for a fuller discussion of the Israelite and Greek encounters with alphabetic writing (and the metaphysical consequences thereof) and their juxtaposition to the post-alphabetic self mentioned below.
26 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p.451.
27 Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, A B C: the
Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (San Francisco: North Point, 1988), p.128.
28 The succession of mediations here in no way
implies that each eliminates or makes obsolete what it virtualizes. Writing didn’t overthrow speech, obsolesce it, render it redundant or cause it to be marginal, but on the contrary, enhanced and transformed oral subjectivity. Likewise speech, far from abandoning gesture as a relic of pre- linguistic communication, facilitates ever-new gesturo-haptic ceremonies and rituals. Homo gesticulator did not become extinct with speech or writing, but is alive and well not only within oral thought, but as the source of thought, affect and subjectivities outside speech and alphabetic texts – in music, games, theatre, dance, the plastic arts, cinema, architecture and mathematics.
29 Steven Connor, ‘A Few Don’ts (And Dos) By a Cultural Phenomenologist’, , http://www.bbk. ac.uk/english/skc/cp/extimacy.htm. [15/06/2008].
30 Mark Federman, ‘The Ephemeral Artifact: Visions of cultural experience’, ,www.mcluhan. utoronto.ca/EphemeralArtefact.pdf . [15/12/2005], p.8.
31 Derek De Kerckhove, ‘Communication on Evolution: Social and Technological Transform- ation’, , www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca/article_ communicationevolution.htm. [15/04/2006].
A great deal more needs to be added to these fragmentary remarks about touch and the gesturo- haptic in the computational universe. A sustained, critical engagement with the question of digital corporeality – ‘how primordial tactility interjects technics into human life’ – focused on the sense of touch and framed within a Merleau Pontyian phenomenology, is the subject of Mark Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006).
32 For more on this see ‘Virtual X/Ghost Effects’referred to in note 21.