“By the end of the nineteenth century, the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost”: so writes Giorgio Agamben in his 1992 essay, “Notes on Gesture.”1 The early years of the twentieth century were marked, the philosopher contends, by a frantic effort to reconstitute the vanished realm of meaningful movements: hence the exaggerated articulations of silent film and the mad leaps of modern dance. Certain “invisible powers”—the economic forces responsible for the simultaneous loosening and mechanization of the social sphere—had rendered daily life, for many, almost indecipherable. It’s a complaint that has echoed through the decades since, as subsequent generations have been characterized as increasingly shambling, ataxic, and slack, but also regimented, uniform, somehow less than human. The gestures of the (racial, national, or generational) other appear both random and programmed, meaningless and mechanical. Why, the gestural conservative wonders, do they keep doingthat thing with their hands, arms, shoulders, crotches?
- 1 Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” in Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), p. 135.
- 2 Joseph Addison, The Spectator, no. 407, 17 June 1712.
- 3 Gilbert Austin, Chironomia: or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery, ed. Mary Margaret Robb and Lester Thonssen (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966), p. 134. Austin, it seems, may not have read Bulwer’s Chironomia, but arrived at the same title by reference to sundry classical sources.
- 4 Ibid., p. xi.
- 5 Ibid., p. 138.
- 6 This venerable gesture, which we may assume was a staple of nineteenth-century stage melodrama, was preserved and perfected in silent film, then abandoned with the advent of cinematic sound, and relegated to the practical repertoire of the traffic cop. It was only in the televised performances of the girl groups of the 1960s that it found its proper emotional valence again. In particular, the Supremes’ 1965 entreaty to “Stop! In the Name of Love” would have meant nothing without this gesture. Nowadays, it has only an ungracious and anomic significance, as the (somewhat dated) title of this essay confirms.
- 7 A. M. Bacon, Manual of Gesture (Chicago: S. C. Griggs, 1875).