Three “Musts” on Gestures

The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances. By N. J. Enfield. Cambridge University Press, 2009 (252 pages).

It would be enlightening for the reader of this book to first peruse Nick Enfield’s brief review of two recent works on language (Science, vol.329, 24 September 2010, p.1600-1601) in order to appreciate the approach which inspired the research whose results he reports in The Anatomy of Meaning. The methodological stand he takes in this brief review is encapsulated in this remark: “To build an adequate empirical basis for solving problems as difficult as the evolution of language, we must observe the target phenomena as directly as possible and in their proper contexts [emphasis added]. It is therefore striking that in studying language, the dominant approaches to linguistics have pursued highly abstract analyses based on data that are only indirectly related to the phenomenon in its natural setting” (1600). Confronting a language directly in its natural setting is precisely what Enfield has done by studying speakers of Lao (a South East Asian language) interacting through words and gestures in real life contexts. This volume is a set of case studies amply illustrated with photographs upon which directional diagrams are super-imposed when needed to indicate movements.

The focus of this research is on composite sets of utterances in everyday life contexts: interactions between buyers and sellers in a market, explanations given on how to operate a domestic appliance, description of an artifact, explaining kinship, and the like. The whole project is conceived in a semiotic perspective that allows the author to manage the multimodality of his object of study, focusing more particularly on the relationship of speech and gesture. Of note is the introduction by Enfield of a new analytical concept: enchrony which designates the distinctive temporal substance of gestures.

The book is divided into two main parts: Deictic components of moves (demonstratives, lip-pointing, and hand-pointing) and Illustrative components of moves (modeling, diagramming, and editing). The first twenty pages set the semiotic theoretic frame which has inspired the descriptive and analytical method. The last pages summarize the results and expand on the theoretical implications of this research. This work could serve as a useful and productive model for further inquiries of this kind.

The Intelligent Movement Machine: An Ethological Perspective on the Primate Motor System. By Michael S. A. Graziano. Oxford University Press, 2009 (224 pages).

The main challenge for understanding human gestures is to come to grips with the fact that the communicative movements we observe are based on epigenetic and cultural developments but that the anatomy and physiology upon which they are grounded evolved independently from these communicative functions. The movement machine described by Graziano is the set of constraints which conditions absolutely the whole repertory of semiotic behaviors that gesture studies identify and analyze. In spite of the mechanistic basis of the complex neuro-muscular and skeleton apparatus which ensures primate survival, Graziano does not elude in his work the cognitive representation which feeds our subjective phenomenology. This rich perspective is conveyed right from the outset by the following anecdote: when a lab experimenter stimulated (by chance) a single neuron in the motor cortex of a monkey, the animal’s arm automatically sprang toward an absent target. At first surprised, the monkey became eventually annoyed by this unintentional movement, grabbed the moving hand with its other hand and sat on it as a way of stopping this nonsense (p.3).

The volume starts with a review of previous studies on the motor cortex, starting with 19th century experiments. The knowledge which has accrued since then forms the substance of the following chapters (pp 39-95). In spite of variations in the interpretation of data whose quality and quantity improved as new means of investigation appeared, this branch of knowledge has proved to be remarkably cumulative. The second part of the book (Chapters 7 – 11, p.97-197) reports and discusses the significance of experiments performed on macaques which tend to show that “the primate motor system does not merely control muscle contractions but coordinates meaningful actions within the normal behavioral repertoire” (181). The last chapter (180-197) examines the social implications of motor control and extrapolates some of the findings to human social behaviors such as defensive reactions, smile, laughter, sex and personal space, social gesture and speech. It concludes with some reflections on autism.

An interesting (and necessary) complement to this work can be found in the latest volume of the Annual Review of Neuroscience (Vol. 33, 2010) [] in which the authors explain how organisms make accurate goal-directed movements: “Error Correction, Sensory Prediction, and Adaptation in Motor Control” (89-108) by Reza Shadmehr, Maurice A. Smith, and John W. Krakauer. This article explores the relationship between a motor command and the movement it produces, and shows how adaptive models of the body and the world make it possible for gestures to finely adjust to targets in a permanent dynamic flow that never comes to rest. It uncovers the complex processes which account for the usual efficiency (and, we could add, beauty) of both routine and innovative gestures.

The Brain’s Sense of Movement. By Alain Berthoz. Translated by Giselle Weiss. Harvard University Press, 2000 (337 pages).

First published in French in 1997, this comprehensive volume is a must for whoever wants to study gestures. It is agreeably written for the non-specialist of brain sciences but nevertheless serious scholar who may not have mastered the intricacies of the neurosciences. Too many students of gestures rely on folk anatomy and physiology, or simply take for granted the body from which they abstract gestures and reduce these complex dynamic behaviors to bi-dimensional schemata, forgetting that gestures originate in the brain and involve all the neurological and cognitive resources which have evolved over millions of years of terrestrial and arboreal life. It is one thing to pay lip service to the body through the general notion of embodiment. It is another thing to actually bring into the study of gesture the relevant knowledge which alone can provide the ground for understanding meaningful movements in context. Systematic observations certainly can make naïve phenomenology yield interesting data in terms of gross patterns and regularities but it requires a deeper and more precise knowledge to elaborate a science of gesture that can take into account the brain’s own sense of movement and control which Alain Berthoz dubbed “the sixth sense”.

One of the most valuable aspects of this work is that it is comprehensive, showing how the simplest movements of the limbs relate to the whole array of motor, perceptual, and cognitive competencies of the human organism. The first chapter expounds a motor theory of perception and the second chapter focuses on proprioception and the functions of the vestibular system. The problem of coherence and unity in the perception of movement, and the integration of multimodal information, notably the coherence between hearing and seeing, are the issues addressed in the third chapter. Chapter 4 deals with egocentric and allocentric frames of reference. Chapter 5 tackles the neural basis of spatial memory and its role in anticipatory behavior. Natural movements and the synergies and strategies they imply are the subjects of the next two chapters. Chapter 8 is entitled “Capture” and explain how movements are accelerated or decelerated in synchrony with other movements, thus foregrounding the importance of speed and timing in the analysis of gestures. Visual orientation and visual exploration, balance and adaptation are covered in the last chapters (9 and 10), concluding with an examination of the visual illusions that our sense of movement and the limits of the underlying apparatus generate. The exposition is often in the first person as if a fascinating story were told to a receptive audience rather than in the abstract mode of a textbook. In the last chapter (14) and the conclusion, the author becomes still more personal, voicing his criticism of the modern architectural cult of the right angle, as alien to the most fundamental characteristic of human movements: the curve and the flow.

The personal tone which permeates the book does not distract, though, from the precision and clarity of the neurological knowledge it efficiently communicates. Students of gesture in any capacity would benefit greatly from perusing this volume as a general introduction to a domain of human semiotic behavior whose complexity they do not always appreciate.

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