In Defense of Gesticulating

I move my hands when I talk — a lot. That is, I move my hands a lot when I talk. And when I talk a lot. But, really, whenever I talk.

I never really thought about this. It's just what we do. I come from a family of gesticulators hailing from a city of gesticulators. So it wasn't until I found myself in San Francisco, then teaching at Berkeley, that said gesticulating became apparent. I'd like to say it made me feel like a linguistic acrobat but, alas, the reality is I suddenly felt like a clown. Or like I had some psycho-physical disorder in which my hands and arms and sometimes whole body twitched and contorted as I spoke.

Mind you, this didn't stop my emphatic gesturing. On the contrary, and perhaps as a sort of rebellion, my gestures became more pronounced, more elaborate, enjoying greater scope and physicality. There have certainly been spilled coffees and cocktails, the occasional face, ass, shoulder, and breast bearing the brunt of my gesticulations. So it goes. I do always turn with a befuddled, dazed, and sincere apology as I smack flesh or cup.

But this is how I talk. It's even how I write. As I inscribe these very words, my hands tends to linger, shake, and gesture as they approach the keyboard, as if to coax meaning from the pitter patter of keys and their attending pixels. For me, as for those in my family and from the New York of old — I can't and won't vouch for present day Manhattan and I am pretty damn sure no one in Brooklyn is gesticulating — the kids these days fear the emphatic, at least in words, preferring to let their facial hair speak for them — for me and whence I come, language is embodied and meaning is gestural.

Usually, people like to think of language as a tool set: I'll pick up this word to designate this meaning or sensation. But that's just not how language works. As Merleau-Ponty, the great French phenomenologist, tells us, we have this language as we have legs and body; we reach for a word as we reach for an itch. Language runs through us as oxygen, gin, toxins, and what have you runs through our veins. We cough words, breathe sense, speak gestures.

Meaning is an event, not a designation. Which is to say, meaning doesn't only predate our occasion, our being on the scene. We make meaning; we conjure meaning. And this is a physical, affective, and conceptual enterprise all at once. To reduce language to mere designation, to reference, is to miss not just the nuance of meaning but the joy, pleasure, and erotics of communication.

To speak is a come on — to others, to cashiers and OK Cupid would-be dates and friends and the world itself. It's to conjure, billow, and bellow swells of inflection. We steer meaning as we steer the world and steer ourselves and are, in turn, steered. We don't just point elsewhere when we speak and write. That's what zombies do; that's a living death. No, we living beings forge the world through gestures semantic, physical, and affective.

Language is odd like that. I, for one, love the act of summoning words to the page and throat and ear. Language, as Barthes tells us, is lined with flesh. Nabokov knows this well just as all great writers do — Borges and Melville and Junot Díaz and TC Boyle and ee cummings and Lisa Robertson and Tom Wolfe and Hunter S and Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and, at his best, Walt Whitman and, of course, Emerson and Clarice Lispector and Luce Irigaray.  I always found Judith Butler's writing rather arid and bereft of such gestures but, when studying Hegel with her, I was most struck by her subtle and nuanced gesticulations as she moved through the Phenomenology in person.

To speak and write is, at the same time, to conjure and create. It's not just to designate and point. When we speak, we bring forth everything that has been in order to inflect it just so to make new meaning, new sensations and affects. And this act is as conceptual as it is physical. So of course I move my fucking hands as I speak: I'm making the world here.

We lean into meaning, into the world, with our bodies and our shoulders and words and grammar, with our stomachs and hands. As we speak, we move meaning around, distributing affect and sense. This takes words, sure, but it also takes hands and limbs and everything else. This shit ain't easy. Making meaning is a demanding act, a gestural act, a gesticulation within the fray and flux of it all.

So, yes, I move my hands as I speak and even as I write. Because the right inflection of the world is hard come by. It's earned through participation. When I move my hands this way and that, I'm weighing words and their meanings and their moods; I'm moving them about, literally, even if they're invisible; I'm conjuring and creating with my toil and sweat, with my inflection at once linguistic, verbal, semantic, and physical; I'm summoning a turn of phrase and steering it into the goddamn world; I'm feeling the impact of a trope, my hands and limbs so much collateral damage or, better, an emphatic umph animated by sound, sense, and affect. Of course I'm using my hands! I'm using everything I got. What are you doing?


Mr. Ziebarth said...

I dig how this post acts as the title track to your concept album: An Emphatic Umph

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ha! And very glad you caught that self-referential moment in there... The blog title has shifted meaning for me many times lo these many years...

davidtEDU said...

I'm first going to comment on the video.

Decorum. "Is it fitting." There is a time and a place for everything AND there is even a time and a place for NOT being decorous. As my kid got older he saw me cuss a bit more. I think when our kids get old enough to engage in a conversation about the slippery gray of the adult behavior we can start letting them peek around the curtain of adult "hypocrisy."

We do give up a bit of our adulthood when we become parents just as teens give up a bit of their childhood as they negotiate maturity. We recapture it as we can, sometimes a weekend or just an hour, but adulthood is a delicious stage that I wouldn't give up... ever.

davidtEDU said...

Gesticulating is a magic act. We both know it's an act, but I haven't left the theatre or street so continue... please.

Not gesticulating is a con game. I always find the far too long hands in the pocket speaker to either be too assure of their message (as if practiced and worked over) or too cool, as if they are above the moment. Either of these makes me wonder what is really going on in the moment and if I matter at all in the moment.

Of course there is the Tom Buchanan (Gatsby) level of gesticulating which is more the sounding of some battle cry or the playing of a victorious trumpet. I'm not saying that's wrong, it just depends on where it's coming from.

Daniel Coffeen said...

"Adulthood is a delicious stage" is one of the best sentences I've read in a while. It's disturbing to me how much contemporary parenting asks adults to give up. And no one wins! Not the kids and certainly not us. It's good to be a kid. And it's good to be an adult. The two should inflect each other, shape each other, all for the better. I loved the slight fear I had as a kid of my parents' more gruff friends. They were exciting. Shielding kids from adulthood is to deny them their education, how they can become adults.

I like gesticulating as theater. It is! As is being in the world. For me, bringing sense into the world, forging sense, conjuring words, demands physical gestures — the little (or not) tweaks of the hand, the emphases and conjuring as in a seance, is essential. I just don't understand any other way.