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Session 4: 'The Anchoring Gesture'

Professor Heather Webb (Professor of Medieval Italian Literature and Culture, University of Cambridge)
Gestural dynamisms in and around Dante’s Comedy

My talk examines visible or legible dynamisms in Dante’s description of gestures in his Comedy. These descriptions of bodily movement and potentially communication are designed to have a particularly strong impact on readers in that they recall codified but static gestures that would have been familiar to medieval audiences through the visual arts. Through one case study of reaching, I intend to show how Dante’s text prompts affective reactions by means of intra- and extra-textual reference to visualised gestures that display attitudes of, or movements towards and through vice or virtue. How does gestural reference in verse and in visual art allude to dynamisms and transformations?

Dr Tim Coombes (Lecturer in Music, University of Oxford) Anti-mimetics

At the heart of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘Notes on Gesture’—a foundational text for interdisciplinary gesture studies—is a historical thesis focused on early twentieth-century French culture. My paper examines two aspects of music-dance relations which developed in that culture. The first is music’s role in the preoccupation with ‘kinaesthetic empathy’ that characterized aesthetic theory from the 1890s into the 1930s. The second is a strand of dance practice that both assumed and denied music’s mimetic powers. As Davinia Caddy has discussed, the poet and
choreographer Valentine de Saint-Point promoted her dancing as an activity in which she was not ‘subject to’ music. The point of her gestures was to manifest a resistance to music’s ‘mimetic invitation’ (to borrow a phrase from the contemporary theorist Arnie Cox). Saint-Point’s choreomusicology embodied a suspicion of audiences’ absorption in art through mimetic identification, a position associated most obviously with Brecht—though with alternative political overtones.

A century later, theories of kinaesthetic empathy have re-emerged, not least in musicology. As in the early twentieth century, critiques of the perceptual processes on which those theories rely are also implicit in more mainstream discourse (notably the two rather different topics of neurodivergence and consent). Early twentieth-century dance practice offers a lively reminder to today’s theorists that discussions of music and gesture easily tend towards simplified, utopian theories of inter-subjective communion.

Amit Chaudhuri (novelist, poet, composer)
Gesture as Inscription and Synecdoche in Indian Classical Dance

Keeping in mind the mudras or hand movements of Bharat Natyam dance, I think of gesture as inscription and synecdoche: in other words, as an alternative to, and rejection of, the full-on realism and completeness that European classicism and the Renaissance encouraged us to think of as indispensable attributes of all artistic projects. I’m interested in particular in how the Indian modern sees, and works with, Indian tradition as synecdoche.

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