In common usage, gesture names the emptiest of social forms. You reach to help someone, knowing already that they’ve got it. Somewhere between reflex and performance, a gesture signals good intentions without the burden of follow-through—we call this a “mere gesture.” At the same time, a gesture can be understood as the smallest, most basic unit of power as it gets made and remade through embodied social relations. A handshake in a back room is only the most obvious example. We raise our hand to speak, or we don’t. We reach out to some and not to others. We return somebody’s gaze, but only if the conditions are right.
In its etymological sense, gesture (from the Latin gerere, to carry or conduct) signals a question of comportment, of how the body conducts itself (Noland and Ness 2008). Critical concern about what gesture conveys—about what kind of meaning it carries—dates back at least as far as the Protestant Reformation, when debates over the performance of sacrament sought to secure a distinction between true belief and the bodily image of devotion, or merely going through the motions. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes this usage in The Book of Common Prayer (1549), where we see the demand for a close match between comportment and Christ-like conduct: “Ye perceive how by his outward gesture and deed he declared his good will toward them.” Like the body itself, gesture in the Protestant imaginary was a degraded (and always potentially corrupt) medium for expression. Hence its parallel career in rhetoric, and eventually in language theory, where gesture has had a similarly unstable position: as supplement, as prosthesis, as distinct from language or as central to its development (Armstrong et al. 1995). Early efforts to define and classify gesture sought to fit the body’s movements to its expressive content—to make gesture more than sheer posturing—even as gesture itself remained ancillary to the authority of the spoken or written word.
This dual usage history echoes in later critical deployments of the term. Consider philosopher Michel Foucault’s observation that “a well-disciplined body forms the operational context of the slightest gesture” (Foucault 1975, 152). Foucault argued that power lives in and through the body; it is something we quite literally carry with us. He described the well-disciplined body as one that serves—and is conditioned by—histories of power, where conditioning means both physical training and social coordination. Thus we might understand even the most mundane or seemingly insignificant gestures as the imprint of discipline over time: a cultural “mnemonics of the body” that includes everything from table manners to “good” handwriting to the repetitive movements of the assembly line (Connerton 1989, 74). For this reason, cultural studies scholars have understood gesture as both communicative and performative; gestures can express semantic content, but they can also enact (and reenact) cultural histories, identities, and commitments. Bound up in a history of repeat performance, gestures function as what philosopher Judith Butler describes as bodily “citations” or “re-citations” (Butler 1988). For Butler, such citations signal both the repetition of power and the possibility that a well-disciplined body might materialize, enact, or perform alternative relations.
Gesture comes to American studies through at least three closely intertwined disciplinary genealogies or comportments, each of which has challenged any naturalized account of the body’s gestural expressivity: the philosophy of action, the study of performance and performativity, and theories of emotion and the affects. Twentieth-century philosophies of action argued that by dint of having a body that moves through the world, our gestures are distinctly social; they are practices to which the body is conditioned and that in turn condition our social interactions. Sociologist George Herbert Mead (1934), for example, defined gesture as the most basic, unconscious form of social stimulus and response from which communication emerges. Rather than locating gesture as the expression of a stable, preexisting self that enters into social relations, Mead and his followers understood the self as the internalization of embodied social cues and responses. French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1934) described the body itself as socially conditioned, a product of culturally specific physical practices or “techniques.” Mauss’s attention to gesture has had far-reaching effects, echoing in what sociologists would later call the “habitus” (Bourdieu 1977) and the “arts of doing” (de Certeau 1984). Alongside this sociological turn to the body, the philosophy of phenomenology—and especially the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945)—traced a physiological feedback loop between kinesthetic perception and cultural habituation, articulating a close connection between ways of moving and ways of knowing the world (Noland 2009).
Where these sociological and philosophical traditions approached gesture as a way of knowing the world, theorists of performance in the same era argued that gesture could also be a way of unknowing it, or denaturalizing its productions. This was the form of gesture articulated by the German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht (1957), who described the “social gest” as a physical attitude that brings into relief the social arrangements that produced it. Gesture, as philosopher Walter Benjamin would point out in his careful reading of Brecht, was the “raw material” of Brecht’s epic theater, or theater that aimed to produce a critical distance between audience and world (Benjamin 1998). Disaggregated from a supposedly natural body, the actor’s gesture served to interrupt the theater’s artifice, and to frame and punctuate its social critique. The effect of Brecht’s epic theater, Benjamin argued, was “to make gestures quotable” (Benjamin 1998). As both Brecht and Benjamin recognized, the theater’s need for such critical or quotable gestures was made spectacularly urgent in the twentieth century by the performative physicality of Fascism; arguing against the tendency to let such gestures speak for themselves, Brecht noted that “only when the strutting takes place over corpses do we get the social gest of Fascism” (Brecht 1957). Recognizing gesture as the site where social conditions are rehearsed and reproduced, Brecht mobilized the actor’s body to reveal the repetitive, theatrical, and often-violent constructions of social order.
This formulation of gesture—as movements that produce, reproduce, and potentially interrupt embodied structures of power—has proved immensely powerful for theorists of gender (Butler 1988, Butler 1990, Diamond 1988), as well as for scholars who have tracked the performative and world-making dimensions of sexuality, race, class, religion, and secularism (Muñoz 1999, Brooks 2006, Pellegrini 2009). This emphasis on the body’s movements as citational, or indeed quotable—as bearing witness to histories of power inscribed on the body and to the body’s capacity to rewrite those histories (Roach 1996, Brooks 2006, Bernstein 2011)—has had a major impact on the fields of American studies and cultural studies. Importantly, in speaking of the body as citational or scripted, performance studies scholars have complicated the distinction between textual and embodied histories; we read history, but we also enact and reenact it in our daily movement through the world (Bernstein 2011, Schneider 2011). So while linguists have studied the semiotics of gesture, linking it to the historical development of spoken and written alphabets (Kendon 2004), scholars of performance such as Diana Taylor (2003) and Rebecca Schneider (2011) have read the body itself as a nonlinguistic (or not simply linguistic) archive, a kinetic form of cultural retention as well as loss and disappearance. This work has opened up important new sites for inquiry by displacing the primacy of textual archives, enabling scholars to recover forms of cultural production that elude or exceed the demands of authoritative or written histories.
Phenomenological, sociological, and performative understandings of physical behavior coalesce in affect theory, which extends this focus on gesture as indexing the more informal operations of power. At least since Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), scholars have noted the close connection between emotion and physical movement. Extending Darwin’s attention to the gestural expression of grief, anxiety, surprise, joy, and other emotions, affect theorists have considered gesture less an instrument of communication than a mode of relation and encounter. By approaching gesture as a site for the transmission of feelings, as well as for everyday modes of desire, contact, and adaptation, affect theorists have helped cultural studies to describe the way that, as anthropologist Kathleen Stewart puts it, “power can begin as a secret kept or as a gesture glimpsed in a hallway” (2007, 84). Affect theory describes gesture as fleeting and hard to fix, neither an action nor an event in the way we conventionally understand these terms. Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant explains that gesture is “only a potential event, the initiation of something present that could accrue density, whether dramatic or not” (Berlant 2011). For many scholars of affect, there is an ethical dimension in paying attention to such “gestures, traces, and activities” (Love 2010). By observing forms of gestural contact that precede or resist sense-making, we glean the power and possibility that such encounters hold for how we structure social and political life.
The cumulative effect of this scholarly work has been to turn our attention toward the historical and ethical dimensions of gesture, allowing us to interrogate how bodies move through the world in relation to other bodies. As an analytic category, gesture connects the minute and the everyday (the “mere gesture”) to the structures of power that operate in and through it. A wave, a wink, a look, or a smile; a time card punched or a camera button pressed; a salute in the theater or in the street; arms raised for the police or in protest. If gestures can signal both long histories of power and the promise of something new, then we might ask, along with the poet Claudia Rankine, “How do you make a body accountable for its language, its positioning?” (Sharma 2014). Situated at the meeting point between communication and performance, transmission and transformation, gesture today is a way of naming (and thus reckoning with) how bodies are positioned, what they endure, and what potentialities they might enact.
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Sharma, Meara. “Blackness as the Second Person: Interview with Claudia Rankine.” Guernica, November 17, 2014. https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/blackness-as-the-second-person/.
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Post-publication keywords essays are contributions to Keywords for American Cultural Studies that respond or add to those contained in the first and second editions of the publication by creating new work. Individuals or groups interested in contributing post-publication essays to Keywords for American Cultural Studies should write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post-publication essay on skill was authored by Lindsay Reckson in 2015.