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Notes towards Gesture by Dr Jennifer Johnson

The gestural, the gesture, the gesture, the gestured and so on are recurring terms – often placeholders for a set of assumptions about the excesses, contingencies, and desire for a groundedness to acts of communication. Gesture, it seems, is substitution or accompaniment. The gestural act, and any reference to it, adds rhetorical weight and, as is often the case for art, validates: it is the assurance of sincere communication made visible.

In 1946, a slow-motion film of Henri Matisse painting showed the brush in hand hovering around the moment of mark-making: the gesture, so prized in avant-garde painting, appeared as if filled by thought and indecision [1]. The gestural action became its own entity: Matisse disowned what was seen by the camera, it was alien to the process as he knew it. Nevertheless, it was there. The knowable consequences of kinaesthetic experience is theorized in the work of Carrie Noland. For Noland, embodied gesturing reveals the ‘conditioning’ a body receives and focuses, ultimately, upon the phenomenological/constructivist divide in thinking about the questions of agency – of whom, or what, holds authority in the case of creating or transmitting anything humanly meaningful [2]. The question is ethical as well as aesthetic: as it is for Giorgio Agamben. The gesture, he writes, ‘is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them’ [3]. At the same time, gesture is something that offers more, that opens the subjects towards the world. At times, this is a reciprocal movement of acknowledgement, of being in the world; at other times (for Levinas, for instance) this is a movement toward the unknown, towards more, towards excess and openness in itself [4]. Such a notion, surely, has great relevance to the mediating role of gesture within cinema [5].

 Bertolt Brecht drew a distinction between what he called the gest [Gestus] and gesture. For Brecht, the ‘gest’ became a basic unit of dramatic action. It was the complex totality of gestures arising from and associated with a human event, the sum or total – gesamthaltuna – of all the participants, actions, and relations of that isolable event. Brecht’s understanding privileges the interhuman and the idea of the objectivised subject as an entity of historical weight and import. And one that can only be grasped in the complex nexus of gestus. At the same time the work of art, the performance of such a nexus, the carrying out of a series of gestures in whatever medium, also has the ability to deliberately perform the kind of alienation Matisse experienced from his own process. Simone Weil described this as ‘decreation’, the emptying but not destroying of established meaning in order to re-establish something – not necessarily a substitute nor an alternative – more profoundly meaningful. Something that in the re-experience, in the gesturing of it, becomes more than it was [6]. Again there is an ethical dimension. In this case, an ethical bind; decreation allows the self to step outside itself for the greater understanding of the self, even as its hold over understanding is sidestepped [7].

Profundity also emerges from the enactment of expectation. The gathering of audience and orchestra alike awaiting the fall of a baton is a specific space in time and time in space. It is the gathering and the announcement, and it is – usually – human. It exists to ask other gestures to take up the invitation and to inhabit the same space. Even, arguably, in John Cage and Allan Kaprow’s ‘happenings’ in the 1960s, where content and expression were ‘freed’ to draw attention to themselves, the structure of initiating gestures remained in place. In such structures there is a persistent sense of comfort. An assurance that meaning, or something intentionally meaningful will take place. And the promise that someone, in some form or medium, will undertake to connect (the half answer to E.M. Forster’s call that all that remains is to ‘only connect’). Art forms that pursue disconnection are difficult, almost dangerous. Their alienation extends the boundaries of self-observance towards a rupture with expression itself – which puts meaning, action, and gesture itself at risk.

The gestural belongs to the body and to its actions and reactions – to fear, comfort, disgust, etc. It belongs also to discourse, to the historical, societal, geographic, psycho-biological, and gendered. It is at once a fixed and wholly indeterminate thing: an ‘architecture of reflexes’, a world of socially-defined conventions, a kind of para-language – but also something impossible to codify [8]. It is this very multivalency that prompts our three days of investigation. What do those aesthetic or ethical or political or bodily frameworks mean to a work of art, to a moment in music, to a line of speech, or a performing body? How are those things embedded and at the same time critiqued by different media and modes of expression and communication? Gesture is a word all too ready-to-hand, but the stakes are high.


[1] A Great French Painter, Henri Matisse, a film written and directed by François Campaux, 1946

[2] Carrie Noland, Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Notes on Gesture in Means Without Ends (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p.58

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981)             

[5] David McNeill, “Speech-gesture mimicry in performance: an actor → audience, author → actor, audience → actor triangle”, Journal for Cultural Research, 19:1, 15-29, DOI: 10.1080/14797585.2014.920184

[6] Yoon Sook Cha, Decreation and the Ethical Bind: Simone Weil and the Claim of the Other (New York: University of Fordham Press, 2017)

[7] See Anne Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006),  and Elizabeth Sarah Coles, Anne Carson: The Glass Essayist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023).

[8] See André Chastel, Gesture in Painting: Problems in Semiology, Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. 10, No. 1 (February, 1986), pp. 1-22

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