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Mediating Gesture in Theory and Practice

Editorial Article

Ana Hedberg Olenina and Irina Schulzki
film theory; media; gesture; mise en geste; mediation; movement; body; language montage; dialectics; ethics; pure gesture; apparatus; technology; deformation; physiognomy; anaphora; carpalistics; revolution; spectacle; power; image; political art; stasis.
Table of contents

Gesture as a Figure of Speech. About this Issue

Liberated Gestures: Theories of Bodily Statements beyond the Sign

Sergei Eisenstein: The Underlying Gesture

In Eisenstein’s Footsteps:Yuri Tsivian’s Carpalistics and Pia Tikka’s Enactive Cinema

Béla Balázs: Physiognomy

Julia Kristeva: Anaphora

Mikhail Iampolski: Deformations

Oksana Bulgakowa: The Factory of Gestures

Giorgio Agamben: Pure Gesture

Vilém Flusser: The Gesture of Filming

Gesturology of Revolution: Petr Pavlenskii’s Mise en geste





Suggested Citation

“Criticism is the reduction of works

to the sphere of pure gesture”.

Giorgio Agamben in Kommerell, or On Gesture (1999a: 80)

Gesture as a Figure of Speech. About this Issue

Gesture seems to be a rather convenient catch-all concept in a wide range of interdisciplinary discussions that probe the expressive acts of the body from the standpoints of iconography, semiotics, anthropology, kinesics, neurophysiology, phenomenology, affect theory, ethics, anthropology, and political philosophy. Elements of these perspectives trickle into cinema and media studies, where the concept of gesture tends to be most frequently evoked for the sake of non-logocentric recuperation of the body, for exploring the limits of agency and rational meaning, and for the assessment of dramatic deeds with cultural and political repercussions. The key questions that gave rise to this collection of essays revolve around methodologies of gestural analysis and the avenues that this path of inquiry opens. How can the notion of gesture, although diffuse and elusive, be formulated as a source of theoretical reflection on cinema and an eligible tool of film and media analysis? What is cinematic gesture in both historical and theoretical perspectives? How does gesture relate to such concurrent concepts as movement, affect, and the body as a whole? How does it surpass this – however evident – relation to the body (above all, the hand, the face, the eye) and become subsumed under the categories of film apparatus (camera movement, perspective, framing, montage, colour, sound)? Where is gesture to be placed between the visible and the enunciable? How does the moving image mediate corporeal performance, both aesthetically and ethically? In what ways do cinematic gestures affect and move the audience? Finally, how does gesture negotiate corporeality, film techniques, and modes of thinking?

Owing to gesture’s “muteness”, any inquiry into the nature of the gestural faces a twofold challenge: the encumbrance of utterance leading to gesticulation on the one hand, and the methodological problem of adequately representing all nuances of the bodily act on the other. How should we capture, verbalise, and analyse the unspeakable beyond mere description and ekphrasis, when all language appears inadequate or overabundant? For good reason, Giorgio Agamben (who forefronts the theoretical premises of this issue) chose a pointed metaphor for gesture: a “gag” in the literal sense of the word – as “something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech” (2000: 59). To overcome such an “incurable speech defect” (ibid.), intrinsic to every gesture, one needs to adopt an almost impossible posture: to transcend the logocentric system by means of language. To put it differently, one has to traverse the path not from words to deeds, but the other way round: from deeds, actions, and movements, from bodies and their actions and passions, to words.

Indeed, one tends to resort to more eloquent, albeit opaque, means – silence and gesture – when confronting the boundaries of language and thought. “Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world [...] ”, remarks Susan Sontag astutely in her 1967 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” (2013: 4).1 She continues: “One use for silence: certifying the absence or renunciation of thought [...] Another, apparently opposed, use for silence: certifying the completion of thought” (ibid.: 17). Indeed, is gesture a surplus of communication or its loss? For effect, we pigeonhole most general phenomena and acts under the category of gesture and expect this terse expression to be grasped in a flash (and we usually do) – gesture is a perfect figure of speech in the generalising (and undifferentiated) rhetoric of politics, ethics, and art (artistic, social, political gesture, grand gesture, beau geste and alike). What is more, it appears to be a perfectly unspeakable figure of speech. The theory is equally affected by this holistic impulse to conceptualise gesture as an overarching “receptacle” which can artfully enclose both form and content and render them indistinguishable. This is manifest in numerous theoretical works, from Bertolt Brecht’s renowned notions of “gest” (Gestus) and “basic gest” (Grundgestus), to Jan Mukařovský’s “semantic gesture” (sémantické gesto) as a dynamic unity emerging in the process of unification of meaning (významová jednotnost) in a work of art (1942), to Vilém Flusser’s attempts at a gestural phenomenology, in which gesture is elevated to a universal, interdisciplinary, and anti-ideological category capable of overcoming the disconnection between the natural sciences and the humanities (1991), etc.

With a nod to Sergei Eisenstein, we have chosen the term “mise en geste” for the collection’s title – not only as a way of underscoring, as the Soviet avant-garde director once did, the performative and enactive dimension of cinema, but to point more broadly to a productive constellation of ideas which emerge when key disciplinary debates in film and media studies are recast in terms of gesture. In a narrow sense, Eisenstein’s term “mise en geste” is defined in his 1948 notes on directing, completed a few months before his death, where he describes the actor’s quest for a precise gesture to convey the subtext of a narrative situation and suggests that the actor gives a scene its dramatic charge by embodying – in the literal sense of the word – the conflicting motives driving the character (Eizenshtein 2004: 393). However, Eisenstein’s interest in gesture went far beyond highlighting the narrative function of the actor’s trajectory within the mise en scene. Time and again throughout his career, he would return to the notion of the moving body, placing it at the very center of the aesthetic process – both for the creator of an artwork and for the spectator. Eisenstein’s gesturology was premised on the conception of the body as a site of intersecting forces – internal and external pressures which give shape to actions and reactions from a mechanical, biological, psychological, social, and political standpoint.

Extrapolating from this broader philosophical concern with gesture, the present issue of Apparatus aims to provide a platform for contemporary research that focuses on corporeal acts as a way of reframing some of the central concerns in film and media scholarship, as well as in cultural theory more broadly. One such concern is the relationship between the moving image and the viewer, both in terms of semiotic production of meaning and the phenomenological, as well as political potency of film. Gesture offers a valuable lens to address the processes that have been described under the categories of projection, mimesis, empathy, sensory engagement, and innervation. A second, related topic taken up by the articles in this volume is the problem of mediation: the question of how visual media capture, modify, transmit, and disseminate movement and thereby contribute to historical transformations.

Thus, Oksana Bulgakowa builds upon her earlier seminal project The Factory of Gestures to outline the role of cinema in reflecting and fashioning bodily comportment. Presenting cinema as a veritable document of somatic history, she investigates the materialisation of cultural and ideological imperatives in the bodily techniques in postwar European film. Eric Rauth proposes the term “cine-kinesis” to address the workings of the filmic medium in his refined and far-reaching interpretation of F. W. Murnau’s horror classic Nosferatu. Irina Sirotkina’s historical study shows the way in which Wassily Kandinsky’s effort to launch a universal science of movement, or “kinemology”, inspired researchers at the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences in the 1920s to record and analyse movements of dancers, workers, and athletes in a variety of media. Drawing on studies of iconography (Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, André Chastel), Ivan Pintor Iranzo traces the enigmatic “gesture of silence” in the oeuvre of Aleksandr Sokurov, arguing that this motif, intertwined with Sokurov’s poetic depiction of liminal spatialities, serves to redirect the spectator’s gaze inward and initiate a reflection on historical memory. In his analysis of Yorgos Lanthimos’s provocative films, Carlo Comanducci proposes the notion of “empty gestures” to describe the mechanical movements that characters are coerced to reproduce in a futile attempt to reinstate lost emotional connections; the performed subjection in Lanthimos inevitably leads to problematisation of subjectivity.

Altogether, theses essays offer a portfolio of historical and theoretical approaches to the study of mediated gesture in cinema, dance, literature, theatre, and visual arts from Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. In the next chapter, we set off for a parcours over some theories of gesture, relevant both in the trans-medial and trans-cultural approaches of the articles presented in this issue and essential in our own understanding of gesture as a mediating term (with the full awareness that any kind of such an overview cannot avoid certain limitations or reductions). The concluding chapter offers an extended commentary on Petr Pavlenskii’s latest performance by considering it as a compelling manifestation of pan-European political and artistic gesturology.

From the collection Styles of Radical Will (1969). Relevant to our discussion of gesture, the German translation of Sontag’s book reads as Gesten radikalen Willens (2003).

Liberated Gestures: Theories of Bodily Statements Beyond the Sign

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