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11. Three Theories of Gesture

Motor Theory of Gesture

  • According to this theory, expressive movement (gesture) is the same kind of movement as instrumental and locomotive movement.
  • E.g., Action-origin theory of gestures (Streek, 1996; Kita, 2000): Gesture is a form of virtual instrumental action.

    "the speaker's hands know how to do things other than gesticulation, and it seems unlikely that the skills that the hands bring to bear on their symbolic tasks are entirely separate from those that they have acquired while handling things. Rather, the patterns that are at hand when there is a need to gesture appear to be made from the same fabric as those that are required in instrumental action." (LeBaron and Streeck , 2000)

    In relation to the experiments with IW this would mean that IW's gestures are to some extent under his conscious control, in the same way as his instrumental and locomotive movements are.


  • Ian's report: original decision
  • Initiation/veto power
  • Gestures, like walking, partially automated.

  • Gesture in cases of aplasic phantom limbs

    Phantom limb in cases of congenital absence of limb is in part the result of innate body schema (Gallagher, Butterworth, Lew, and Cole, 1998) --so gesturing aplasic phantoms may be consistent with motor theory.

    Ramachandran (1998) reports the following conversation with subject who has aplasic phantoms:

    Dr: "How do you know that you have phantom limbs?"
    M: "Well, because as Iım talking to you, they are gesticulating. They point to objects when I point to things."

    (See Brugger et al. 2000 for a similar case)

    But consider Ramachandranıs patient again:

    M: "When I walk, doctor, my phantom arms donıt swing like normal arms, like your arms. They stay frozen on the side like this" (her stumps hanging straight down). "But when I talk, my phantoms gesticulate. In fact, theyıre moving now as I speak."
  • Communicative Theory of Gesture

  • According to this theory, gesture is essentially language and functions primarily in communicative contexts.

  • Gesture is not a motor supplement to language, added on to enhance meaning.

  • McNeill (1992): "gesture and language are one system"

    "gestures are movements that occur only during speech, are synchronized with lin-guistic units, are parallel in semantic and pragmatic functions to the syn-chronized linguistic units, perform text functions like speech, dissolve like speech in aphasia, and develop together with speech in children. Because of these similarities, a strong case can be made for regarding gestures and speech as part of a common psychological structure." (McNeill: 1992)

    In relation to the experiments with IW this would mean that IW's gesturing is not consciously controlled, but is nonconsciously integrated with linguistic behavior; controlled by factors that go beyond ordinary sensory-motor control.

  • launching and timing of Ian's gestures are normal--coordinated with speech acts

  • morphokinesis normal

  • Gestures in congenitally blind

    Iverson and Goldin-Meadow (1998)

  • Congenitally blind subjects engage in normal gesturing, despite the fact that they have never had a visual model for gesturing

  • They also gesture in conversations with other blind subjects -- despite the fact that no one sees the gesture

    Merleau-Ponty suggests that speech accomplishes thought. The experiments on gesture in the congenitally blind suggest that gesture too accomplishes thought (gesturing is a part of language that linguistic subjects need for their own linguistic-thought processes, and not just for communicative purposes).

  • ... Enactive Theory of Gesture...

    The enactive theory contends that gesture is

  • communicative -- pragamatically intersubjective
  • cognitive -- an enabling aspect of thinking
  • embodied -- constrained and enabled by motoric possibilities

    -- Communicative/cognitive aspects: Launching and continuing vector of a gesture are framed within a linguistic event. Shape and timing (coordinated with speech) are related to the semantic or communicative context.

    -- Embodied-Motor Aspects: On-going feedback (body schema in normal case; visual body image for Ian) gives motor system a sense of where limbs are for purpose of topokinesic control.

  • The enactive theory allows for a more precise understanding of how motoric and communicative processes are at work in gesture.

  • Initiation: in some cases, conscious control exercising veto power
  • Launching and timing: communicative control (pragmatics)
  • Morphokinesis: communicative control (semantics)
  • Topokinesis: motor control

  • Conclusions:

    (1) Gesture is both constrained and enabled by embodiment (the body shapes the possibilities of gesture) and yet it it differentiated from and transcends body-schematic movement, although it still requires a motor component. Language emerges from motility and depends upon it, even as it transcends it toward a communicative/semantic order.

    (2) Language and cognition return to the body through gesture; they make the body move in certain ways. It is another person like myself who motivates, and mediates this process. To say that language moves my body is already to say that other people move me.

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