A gesture is a communicative corporal action that may have different relationships with language. Not only can it substitute language but it can also complement it or even complete it. A gesture is also central in both artistic as well as religious expression.
The idea of gesture always implies a bodily action. It is an action that is of a communicative order with other bodies. More or less close, being that, when the gesture touches, the most immediate sense is transmitted and when the gesture only suggests or expresses, perhaps symbolically only, the communication is more delayed and mediated.
A gesture expresses meaning and signification; it implies a language, most often culturally codified.
A gesture is necessarily inserted in a communicative process, and refers to it not always in the same way. Different gestural schemes are possible. The most immediate one is without a doubt the one that rhetorically complements language, providing it the emphasis required at a certain time and perhaps even completing or yet clarifying the sense of the linguistic assertion. In ancient rhetoric, this dimension of gestures that accompanies the discourse of the speaker, complementing it in the communicative process, had already been pointed out by the first theorists of the discipline.
A true integration of gesture in the communicative process is seen here in that language is the most audible side. Gesture accentuates what is heard through what is seen. Such as intonation can provide different meanings to the same linguistic utterance, so can a gesture give more accuracy to the meaning of a speech.
Of course this type of gesture, just like the language it is associated to, depends on a precise cultural codification whose previous knowledge is needed for a perfect understanding of the message. In the most basic examples, we know that moving the head vertically, goes together with the utterance “yes” and the horizontal movement of the head that of “no”.
In this example, the affirmation, which in other cultures may be expressed through different gestures, may even be achieved only by the gesture. The same is naturally true with the opposite, negation.
We approach here another type of communicative gesture that works as language, that is, as a substitute of verbal language. Gesture as language, not as a complement of language but as its substitute. The most obvious example is naturally, sign language for the deaf-mutes in which each gesture encodes a basic communicative element.
While substituting verbal language, gestures acquire and perform their communicative functions in such a way that makes it dispensable, going further still in communicative expression. For example, the affective gesture, the caress, at times expresses through gestures what words can not totally or so completely express. From this point of view, a gesture may intensify communication to a level of closeness that verbal language would hardly achieve.
Silence, from a rhetorical perspective, may be a context of message intensification, especially if it intends a more affective intention. It is said that some silences are eloquent. Especially when the gesture complements them or more completely expresses them.
An exclusively gestural language, such as the one used by deaf-mutes, operates in silence which is different from speech which interrupts it. Not entirely, however, once speech is also completely made of intermittent silences which is how it is allowed to be heard.
Rituals, namely religious, are other kind of gestures. The sign of the cross, for example, in Christianity. It is a ritual gesture that symbolically expresses a religious belief but which is also seeking precise effects of protection or others. They manifest through rituals, feelings of respect or of begging concerning the divine entity.
Ritual gestures are made of repetition like when someone commemorates a primordial act. Repeating it by gestures is updating it, resuming its performative strength. In the primitive horde, example that Freud analyses in Totem and Taboo, the ritual imposes gestures pacifying the sentiment of guilt for a crime committed.
According to anthropologists, the rite and gestures that manifest it always refer to a myth whose narrative it stages. This staging of the myth by the ritual makes it a kind of representation, like in the theatre. The aim will be, on the one hand, cathartic, like in the Greek tragedy, but on the other hand, the gestures of the rite will not run out only in this function. It makes, as we have seen, not only a commemorative repetition but, more than that, a staged update of the mythical universe.
What happens in theatre, with its buzzing gestures, and in art in general, requires still some reflection.
Dance of course represents a pure gesture of silence although it intensely mimes the musical universe in which it is inserted and of which it can not separate from. But it is in drawing or painting that a gesture materialises, always leaving the most indelible marks of singularity. These visual arts are like materialised gestures.
Sometimes that materialised gesture on paper has calligraphy by intention as we know happens in some oriental cultures. Gesture here may have a double meaning: that of the message it specifies on the given support and the one it expresses by the art of gesture that it manifests.
A gesture is always an action that necessarily originates from a body which, through it, can be seen and be made present. There are historic gestures, like the one of Caesar crossing the Rubicon River, or mythical gestures, like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot. Others are undefined as far as that distinction is concerned; however there are certainly gestures of religious nature, for example, for Christians the gesture of sharing bread and drinking wine, doing it in memory of a first gesture that is then not lost in time.
That corporeality of gesture is its most outstanding feature, maybe with the silence that it represents as a means of communication. It contrasts with the materiality of sound in language. Also its concrete and visible dimension opposes it to the invisibility of language as a privileged mean of conveying meanings to the most abstract thought.
Gesture, like language, also has its slang or jargon side manifesting messages of a more negative connotation. Not forgetting that if a gesture represents a means of communication, it is not necessarily positive or affectionate like in the case of a caress. Hatred can also be expressed by gestures and perhaps with more serious consequences than speech.
Of course we know, at least since Austin, that language is capable of doing things and therefore acting. However, it is at another level of visibility that the gesture acts. For that reason distinguishing itself in the clarity of its intentions. And yet we may have to conceive both, gesture and speech, as the two sides of the same communicative coin.
Barrier, G., La communication non verbale: Comprendre les gestes, perception et signification. ESF, 2007.
Jousse, M., L'Anthropologie du geste. Gallimard, 1974.