The Language of Gesture and the Moving Image

Representing speech by graphic means is something we humans have been doing for some 5000 years. This text is “what I’m saying”, captured in writing.

Of course, I have never really said this, never spoken these words. This text is born in writing. Like most written texts, it is a simulation of speech that awaits its realization in the reader’s imagination. In yours.

The letters of the alphabet more or less signify units of sound, phonemes. The relation between letter and sound however is purely conventional; letters are not images. There is nothing A-ish about the A, or F-ish about the F. But through these arbitrary signs this text may still represent what I’m saying through how it should sound. Very roughly.

Does language need speech, that is, vocal sound? No, it doesn’t. Sign language is a full-grown, albeit mute form of language. And yet, speech is worldwide the default mode. And no written text, I think, is completely silent.

It is unlikely that while you’re reading this text the letters will call to your mind the individual phonemes, or even the sound of the words. But maybe you’re imagining (however vaguely) a certain tone of voice. Punctuation and syntax play an important part in this.

As do white spaces.

Tone of voice, imaginary or real, is or should be every writer’s concern. It has traditionally been a focus of interest for teachers of rhetoric. And because little of the tone of voice, of the actual speech act, is actually captured in writing, some of these rhetoricians devised ways of representing the intonation separately alongside the text. Or attempted to transcribe it in musical notation.

The act of speaking is not limited to the voice. The whole body participates in expressing our intentions, which are only imperfectly realized in the words. Gesture, body language, “the eloquence of the body” too was part of rhetoric, a skill that could be taught, disciplined, rationalized.

According to the Irish clergyman and headmaster Gilbert Austin,

“On his commencement as a public speaker (which cannot be too early), it is necessary to teach [the pupil] every thing, and to regulate by rules every possible circumstance in his delivery; his articulation, accent, emphasis, pauses, tones, voice, countenance, and, along with all, his gesture”. (p. 282)

And like the words spoken, and the tone in which they are spoken, gesture was something that could be captured by graphic signs. This he did in his Chironomia (“hand management”), published in 1806, from which I’ve just quoted.

Besides being a teaching aid, the notation of gesture could also be a valuable tool in recording the actual performances by orators and actors. A text annotated by his method would allow the reader to recreate some of their performances in his or her imagination.

Austin recognized that, like speech and music, gesture is a continuous flow, not a series of discrete postures.

“The variety of gestures, of which the human figure is capable […] may almost be accounted infinite. In this great variety there appears however a similarity and relation among many gestures, which affords opportunity for classification and nomenclature: so that, however unattempted hitherto in this view, the art of gesture and its notation (that is the representation of any gesture by appropriate symbols) seems capable of being reduced to a regular system” (p. 293).

Classification and nomenclature: for this purpose, Austin broke down the flow of gesture into discrete elements, positions and movements. These he indicated in the text by a rather laborious system of graphic signs (ordinary letters).

Such a method is likely to produce an artificial result. Though it is not uncommon that a repertoire of discrete, identifiable gestures emerges spontaneously in practice (and much rhetorical teaching besides Austin’s has been based upon this premise). Just think – as a particularly depraved example – of the puppet-like hand and arm movements of Donald J. Trump. A product of involuntary self-caricature, and therefore a textbook case for contemporary studies of rhetoric.

Because gesture is visual, it is a small step to move from description to depiction. To clarify his system Austin made use of images. But images too can only capture a moment. Unless you draw various stages of the flow of action, that may be “read” as quasi-continuous motion. The curious fact is that some of the anonymous engravings in Austin’s book very much resemble film strips.

Austin 1806 Systematic Positions of the Arms

And it is in fact quite possible to animate them.
Austin 1806 animated © Lodewijk Muns

“The language of gesture bears more analogy to that of music than to the language of general ideas: and therefore it is named the notation of gesture. As the notation of musical sounds records the melodies and happy harmony of sounds which in their nature endure but for a moment, so the notation of gesture records the beautiful, the dignified, the graceful or expressive actions of the body, by which the emotions of the mind are manifested on great and interesting occasions, and which in themselves are no less transitory.”  (p. 276)

Gesture, for Austin, is a “language” more like music than like spoken language (“the language of ideas”), even though speech is no less “transitory” and may be equally charged with emotion.

Such a pictorial representation of gesture is, to my knowledge, unprecedented. John Bulwer’s much earlier book of the same title (Chirologia … Whereunto Is Added Chironomia: Or, the Art of Manuall Rhetoricke, 1644) is famous for its pictures of hand gestures. But those illustrations are a simple table of isolated gestural signs.

Does Austin’s Chironomia therefore deserve a place in the history of the moving image?

The technique of using a series of still images in rapid succession to suggest movement has come surprisingly late, considering the simple mechanics that is required. Even though the idea of combining moving images with magic lantern projection seems to have occurred to the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens as early as 1659, practical applications emerged only in the nineteenth century. The phenakistiscope, which contains images on a spinning disc watched through slits, was invented in 1832. The similar zoetrope was perfected in 1865. Most surprisingly, the simple flip book seems not to have been documented before 1868.

To suggest that Austin’s illustrations are part of this development is no doubt a far stretch. His text lacks any indication that the series of images must be “read” from left to right as a quasi-continuous sequence. Let alone, that he (or his engraver) had any idea that the slowness of our perception might trick us into seeing continuous movement where there is only a succession of distinct images.

On the other hand, going down to minute details of gesture, breaking a flow into elements and recreating it from those elements is the basic principle of animation.

With his method of analyzing and resynthesizing the “language of gesture” Austin attempted to animate the speaker’s body. In a more indirect way, a musical score animates the musician, directing her to produce a flow of sound-producing movements and gestures. And the letters of a text, this text, are animated as a flow of words, ideas, perceptions in the reader’s mind. In yours.


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