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Metaphors We Move By

Brenda Farnell

[It] is therefore certain that I am truly distinct from my body and that I can exist without it.

René Descartes 1641 (1986: 93)

In western societies . . . spoken language generally tends to be associated with ‘real’ knowledge, where body languages are not often, if ever, associated with ‘real’ knowledge. In the minds of many, there is an unfortunate equation between linguistic signs and thought and action signs and non-thought.

Drid Williams (1980: 109)

The natural body itself became the gold standard of social discourse.

Thomas Lacquer (1986: 18)

Introduction 1

In Lakoff and Johnson’s early work on metaphor (1980) and developments in Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987), the authors correctly identify the need to forge an embodied account of categorization and cognition. In seeking to restructure traditional philosophical and linguistic approaches to semantics and rationality, they aim to transcend the curiously disembodied view of human beings that has permeated the social sciences until recently.2 In order to accomplish this, Lakoff and Johnson construct a notion of “kinesthetic image schema” that posits a basic level physical experience which is preconceptual, out of which concepts are structured. In this article I suggest that such an approach to the problem of embodiment compromises the authors’ important goals by retaining a residual positivism and mentalism that repeats fundamental theoretical errors found in the objectivist paradigm they reject.

     I find their approach problematic because the notion of “image schema” restricts body movement to the role of an experiential, preconceptual precursor to spoken concepts. Once transformed into mental images, such experience assists in the building of a conceptual system from which physical action is subsequently excluded. From this perspective, bodily experience provides only the ground upon which that which really counts—spoken language concepts and categories—can be built into metaphorical schemas. Physical being and bodily actions have been denied the status of signifying acts and embodied forms of knowledge.

     This raises important issues for the problem of the disembodied actor in social theory. It is of direct import to anthropological inquiry since at the heart of the social sciences are major difficulties in characterizing what human beings are like and what human agency is. Since reinventions of nature are part of cultural politics, our constructions of human movement set on stage what kind of creature we expect to enact the human drama. Failure to make the action of moving agents central to a definition of embodiment (and therefore to social action) risks compromising anthropological inquiry by distorting our understanding of ways of knowing and being that do not evince the kinds of philosophical and religious biases against the body that can be found throughout the history of Western philosophy and social theory.3 In contrast to Lakoff and Johnson, therefore, I shall argue that there can be no such thing as “basic physical experience” outside of conceptual schemas and therefore outside of culture.

     Lakoff and Johnson’s exegeses are, on the whole, typical of their disciplinary affiliation in linguistics and philosophy, in that generalizations about physical experiences are based on reasoning from their own positions as educated speakers of American English. Such generalizations are naturalized and it is assumed they apply to all human beings. In contrast, I shall draw upon ethnographic examples from several cultural contexts and types of action sign systems—everyday gestures, signed languages, danced traditions and ritual action—to present an alternative perspective.

     I maintain that if physical being and bodily movement are viewed as signifying acts or action signs instead of “concrete bodily experience,” “motor programs” (Johnson 1987: xv, xvi) or “motor movement” (Lakoff 1987: xiv), they can be seen to provide a medium other than speech that shares the conceptual stage and systematically employs metaphoric and metonymic conceptions. This implies that our imaginative capacity is not merely indirectly embodied, “since the [spoken] metaphors, metonymies and images are based on . . . bodily experience” (Lakoff 1987: xiv), but that our imaginative capacity is directly embodied because action signs themselves can be imaginative tropes, only some of which integrate with or are taken up in spoken language forms. In this paper, I offer a contribution to an emergent post-Cartesian discourse on embodied persons as moving agents, by exploring ways in which human bodily movement is imaginative, conceptual, and metaphorical.

Déjà Vu All Over Again 4

If the objectivist view of mind that Lakoff and Johnson reject is grounded in the manipulation of abstract symbols that get their meaning from their representation of reality or correspondence with the world, Lakoff’s “experiential realism” and Johnson’s “image schemata” merely flip the Cartesian coin so that meaning is grounded instead in the body as a natural organism capable of a direct correspondence with the world through “experience.” This residual positivism, instead of mediating the chasm between nature and culture as the authors perhaps intend, returns the socially constructed biocultural body to a biological organism—a natural ground independent of culture and the new base-level provider of certainty.

     Lakoff’s appeal to the body and its actions as a natural experiential foundation thus presents us with a new kind of foundationalism. Johnson (1987), for example, seems to have missed the import of his own spatial metaphors when he refers to probing “beneath” the level of propositional content, to get “back down” (1) into image schematic structures of imagination, which are the “pre-conceptual” means by which “the body (physical experience and its structures) works its way up into the mind i.e. mental operations” (xxxvi). The old hierarchical dualisms attached to the up/down dimension appear to be alive and well.

     Superior, developed qualities are duly ascribed to thinking minds up in our heads, while primitive qualities are ascribed to the feeling, preconceptual, sensing body down below. Reason is up, of the mind, controlled, ordered (and, as feminist critiques have shown, decidedly male5), while emotions and body functions, as well as ignorance, pull us forever downward, like Eve in the Fall. These polar opposites are, of course, hierarchical, because one side rules over the other: mind over body, reason over emotion, and male over female.

     Philosophical problems posed by formulations that posit a mental realm of operations are evident in Johnson’s discussion of “image schemata” as he tries to locate and define the patterned structures he proposes. We are told that image schemata are not propositional nor are they rich images of particular things (mental pictures); they are more general, abstract and malleable than rich images. While image schemata have “definite parts and structural relations that emerge chiefly at the level of our physical or bodily perception and movement,” they constitute a distinct level of “cognitive operations” and are imagistic in character (Johnson 1987: 27). These mentalistic metaphors place the discourse firmly in the realm of what Harré and Gillet call the “first cognitive revolution” which was based on a revival of the use of mentalistic concepts in psychological theorizing (Harré and Gillett 1994: 18). Within this paradigm the mind is still a Cartesian realm in which individual subjects build up a picture of their world from their contact with it.

     This kind of representational theory implies a mental arena in which images or rules exist prior to our acts, or operate in our heads while we are acting, an “echo” theory of mind that was firmly rejected by the later Wittgenstein in his critique of rules. As with rules, I prefer to say that people use images to comprehend and reason about their actions after the fact. Images do not use people as the vehicles of their causal efficiency to generate actions. Following Wittgenstein’s shift to looking at the problem of meaning as discovering what people actually do with word patterns and other sign systems, I take the position that there is no need to suppose some autonomous mental realm existing behind acts of speaking or moving, and no entity, the conceptual system, that has to find concrete embodiment: to have a concept is to be able to use the relevant words or other signs (Mühlhäusler and Harré 1990: 6–7).

     Another unfortunate legacy of Cartesian discourses about mind/body relations that we see exemplified in Lakoff’s and Johnson’s works is a narrow intellectualism that limits the term ‘concept’ to knowledge that is propositional and verbal (i.e., spoken). As a result, in explicit contrast to speech, semiotic practices that utilize body movement other than vocal gestures are categorized in purely oppositional terms as ‘non-verbal’ and ipso facto as either aconceptual or preconceptual. Unfortunately, Lakoff’s and Johnson’s contributions cannot take us very far along the road to a genuine embodiment of persons because by restricting the body and its nonvocal semiotic practices to a preconceptual level, they inadvertently continue the Cartesian agenda instead of transcending it. They retain an individualist, mental interiority that merely heralds the inclusion of a physical interiority.6

     As I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (Farnell 1994), an adequate account of the embodiment of persons requires a radical reconstruction of classical precepts about the nature and role of person and agency and the dualistic thinking that has not only separated body from mind, but also created oppositions between subjective and objective, mental and material/ behavioral, thinking and feeling, rational and emotional, and verbal and nonverbal (Farnell 1994: 930). What is required is a new definition of human agency that transcends the terms of the old dualisms.

     This theoretical shift has already been achieved by Harré’s causal powers theory within a “new realist” philosophy of science (Harré 1986a). By clarifying the exact nature and role of agency in the production of action, causal powers theory allows us to transcend Cartesian mind/body talk. I won’t discuss this further here, but shall talk from this view of human agency as it has been articulated in Varela’s detailed analyses (1994 and 1995). Causal powers theory also provides the ground for the conception of agency central to Williams’s post-Cartesian approach to an anthropology of human movement. Within this perspective, it is persons as causally empowered agents who act in meaningful ways, not ‘bodies’ or ‘minds.’

     It is people or persons who utilize culturally constructed action concepts, not minds and bodies: they use concepts of the body via their kinesthetic awareness; of spatial directions and the complex space(s) in which they move; of the changing dynamics of action; and relationships between all of these. As we shall see, “action signs”7 may or may not integrate with spoken language, but they do not merely prefigure spoken language concepts, or reflect them.

     Since these contrasting views involve issues central to current debates about embodiment and social theory, and in aid of theoretical clarity in the anthropology of human movement, I will examine Lakoff’s “experiential realism” and Johnson’s “image schema” in more detail prior to a discussion of movement as metaphor.

Experientialism versus Objectivism

Both Lakoff and Johnson characterize the traditional view of semantics and cognition (as well as contemporary attempts to make it work) as “objectivism.” They argue against the traditional view of reason as abstract and disembodied, and seek to replace it with the idea that “reason has a bodily basis” (Lakoff 1987: xi). Whereas the traditional view sees reason as literal and about propositions that can be objectively true or false, the new view takes “imaginative aspects” of reason such as metaphor, metonym and mental imagery as central and not peripheral (Johnson 1987: preface). The new view intends to make the study of meaning a matter of what is meaningful to thinking, functioning beings in their environment and so, “our bodily experience and the way we use imaginative mechanisms are central to how we construct categories to make sense of experience” (Lakoff 1987: xii). This is a project of some importance, then, for an anthropology of human movement, in that both share the goal of overturning the traditional Western philosophical exclusion of the body from the meaning-making aspects of human life.

     Johnson develops the notion of “image schemata” to show how “an adequate account of meaning and rationality must give a central place to embodied and imaginative structures of understanding by which we grasp the world” (1987: xiii). Lakoff calls these “kinesthetic image schemata” and incorporates them into his “experiential realism” or “experientialism.” So far we can wholeheartedly agree with this important expansion. It is only when we examine the exact role that embodiment is to play in experiential realism and image schemata that serious disjunctions appear.


To claim “experience is structured in a significant way prior to and independent of any concepts” (Lakoff 1987: 271) demands an explanation of what exactly is meant by ‘experience’ and ‘concept.’ Unfortunately nowhere does Lakoff give a clear and systematic account of what he means by ‘experience,’ except that he is using it in a broad sense: “[Experience] includes everything that goes to make up actual or potential experiences of either individual organisms or communities of organisms—not merely perception, motor movement etc., but especially the internal genetically acquired makeup of the organism and the nature of its interactions in both its physical and its social environments” (Lakoff 1987: xv). Leaving aside the tautology that “experience includes everything that makes up experiences,” Lakoff includes perception, movement, genetics and interaction with environments. Elsewhere he tells us that experience involves “the nature of our bodies, our genetically inherited capacities, our modes of physical functioning in the world, our social organization etc.” (1987: 261). Lakoff in fact requires the word “experience” to act as a metaphor for everything not included in his crude polar opposite, the objectivist approach (i.e., “meaning defined independently of the nature and experience of thinking beings”).

     His primary concern is to make embodiment, defined as “our collective biological capacities and our physical and social experiences as beings functioning in our environment” (Lakoff 1987: 267), central to “experiential realism.” While these statements consistently fail to provide any systematic account of experience, phrases such as “beings functioning in our environments” and “biological capacities” at least infer the involvement of perceptual processes, and so it is to this topic we must now briefly turn.


To posit a realm of experience that gets structured prior to and independent of concepts assumes a theory of perception by means of which such experience is possible. To clarify the issues involved, I will draw upon Harré’s discussion of the metaphysics of experience (1986a: chap. 7), which provides a succinct summary of both naive and sophisticated versions of representational theories of perception.8 The representationalist tradition, Harré argues, institutionalizes a radical separation of percept and (corresponding) world state which can be represented as follows: O (object) causes S (sensation) which is interpreted (noninferentially) as P (percept). Thus, “Classical perception theory inserts two stages between world state and percept. In the first a causal relation is supposed to obtain between world state and sensation. In the second the sensation is reworked in some cognitive process to yield the percept” (Harré 1986a: 147).9 Harré concludes that foundational to four centuries of perception theory is the unexamined assumption that perception is built out of sensations: that “percepts are cognitively transformed sensations and the basis of perception is an awareness of states of the brain that are the remote effects of physical causes” (Harré 1986a: 155).

     When Lakoff states “experience is structured in a significant way prior to and independent of any concepts,” what experience could he be referring to other than sensations? If this is the case, then the significant structuring must refer to percepts that are cognitively transformed sensations. It would seem then that Lakoff adheres to traditional perception theory, yet presumably this is not the case, since he also wishes to embrace the interactional properties of Gibsonian perception (Lakoff 1987: 215).10 Johnson, while similarly unsystematic in his definition of ‘experience,’ is more explicit in “rejecting the classical empiricists’ notion of experience as reducible to passively received sense impressions, which are combined to form atomic experiences” (Johnson 1987: xvi).

     Lakoff refers to experiential categories in addition to cultural categories, revealing a residual empirical realism: what is real is the world as you perceive it and sense it; it is simply “there.” But surely, this is precisely what is in question.11 When, as infants, we learn to move our bodies and manipulate objects, we are rapidly developing concepts of ourselves as centers of force with boundaries. Action concepts are first acquired through deictic performances such as intentional acts of pointing, and develop out of the natural interest in and skill of grasping. The developing child is thus an emergent person who acts and interacts with her environment, not merely a set of “perceptual interactions and motor programs” at work. While action concepts are certainly nonpropositional, they account for physical experiences and our patterning of them without having to resort to a preconceptual realm.

     I fail to see how we could use such experiences or build them into patterns if they were preconceptual. To propose this necessitates the existence of a mechanism other than the agent by which they are built, which violates the logic of causal powers by separating the power from the particular (Varela 1995: 270–74). We are, of course, taught names for some of these patterns eventually and as we learn to discuss them in the abstract, we develop a concept of, say, ‘force,’ which we can explicate in propositional terms. But it is an emergent culturally influenced concept of force that developmentally precedes such propositional understanding, not something we retain that “goes deeper than our conceptual . . . understanding” (Johnson 1987:13).

     Several forms of awareness are interwoven in any action. There is certainly one’s perception of things in the environment—seeing and touching, say, the shovel one is picking up in order to dig a hole. There is the kinesthetic awareness of one’s body and bodily movement in one’s conscious action of picking up the shovel. This is most likely to be an out-of-focal awareness of one’s acting because, once a skill is acquired, attention is on where and how one is going to act with the shovel. Also required, however, is a cultural understanding of the activity of ‘digging’ and some skill. These observations apply whether we are thinking of a Hidatsa (Plains Indian) woman’s digging stick, a buffalo scapula ‘hoe,’ or any comparable instrument for ‘digging.’ These forms of awareness cannot be reduced to the others, whether reducing action to cognition, or cognition to action or “experience,” and none is foundational for the others (Woodruff-Smith 1988: 51–52).

     When learning a new phrase of danced movement from an Egyptian dance I’m currently studying, I might ask the teacher to “explain” how to perform a subtle hip action that I have observed and tried to perform but cannot yet reproduce accurately. This distinct action sign has no name in this dance tradition. My teacher says, “It goes like this,” as she repeats the action more slowly and carefully, adding “see, it’s this (she points) part of your hip leading—yaaam da da, yaaam da da,” and the syllables create a rhythm that echoes the dynamics and timing of the action as she performs it again before I try once more. My point is that there are few spoken language concepts involved here but what is going on is not preconceptual. Why? Because I have had to focus my attention (my kinesthetic awareness, not my eyes) on the front side of that hip and learn to carve a shape in the space surrounding it with that part of my hip. I’ve had to “draw” two horizontal circles clockwise in space. However confusing the process may sound in words, this is a person acting, not a mind thinking while the body experiences, and this point can’t be overstressed.

     Likewise, when working with Assiniboine storytellers on the transcription of Plains Indian sign language into Labanotation, I might ask for clarification by saying, “Where does the hand movement in that sign go exactly?” and the reply will not be a vocal utterance but a kinesthetic one. The storyteller will repeat the action of taking the right hand through space away from his torso and forward. Again, there is no name for that action and one is not necessary because embodied knowledge is being used and shared here. This is knowledge consisting of kinesthetic concepts that are body parts acting in space/time, not mental representations or spoken-language translations of them.

     If I then ask my consultant, “Do you think of that hand as moving away from your chest or as going towards the front?” I might receive a reply that offers a correct interpretation, including neither of my suggestions. The reply might be a third alternative such as “It goes east,” as the gesture is simultaneously repeated again. Here the concept involved is a spatial one that is based on a culture-specific concept of the four cardinal directions. While there is indeed a name for this salient direction in spoken Assiniboine, it would be erroneous to suppose that the action-sign concept was “in” the word, as if the name echoed in the storyteller’s head as he used the action sign. Rather, the concept is a spatial one. Like spoken language concepts, such knowledge remains out of awareness when we use it because our focal attention is upon the communicative or other semantic task at hand.

Image Schema

Johnson’s use of the terms “schema” and “schemata” shares features of Kant’s delineation of schemata as nonpropositional structures of the imagination that connect percepts with concepts. According to Johnson, as a “recurring, dynamic pattern of our perceptual interactions and motor programs,” image schema “exist pre-conceptually in our experience [and] give rise to rational entailments” (Johnson 1987: 21–22). For example, our knowledge of physical forces, which remain out of our focal awareness most of the time, are “pre-conceptual gestalts” (1987: 42). I suggest that to conceive of such practices as matters of habit would be more fruitful, because we develop all kinds of skills that we don’t have to keep in focal awareness moment by moment because of habit. As the functional psychology of James, Dewey and Mead identified long ago, the function of habit is to free the person for novelty and so, once habituated, we can put ourselves on “cruise control,” as it were.

     That is, not paying attention to the forces inside us and in our environment is a matter of habit and skill, not of having “meaningful experiences that we can call into consciousness” from a preconceptual realm (Johnson 1987: 43; italics added). Johnson here conflates consciousness in general with the reflective self-consciousness required to understand, reason about and communicate in language. How can one have an experience of which one is not conscious?

     Bumping into the edge of a table in an unfamiliar dark room, for instance, involves more than our perceptual field and the “experience of the interactional character of force” (Johnson 1987: 43). A whole range of concepts must come into play for us to know what we have experienced and what it means for future action. The skilled habits of our daily practical activities allow us to function autonomously, but the fact of not having to think about them does not make them “pre-conceptual.”

Metaphors We Live By

Lakoff ‘s and Johnson’s basic task is to show how “through metaphor we make use of patterns that obtain in our physical experience to organize more abstract understanding” (Johnson 1987: xv). Johnson suggests that the meaning of “physical force” depends on publicly shared meaning structures that emerge from our bodily experience of “force.” This creates an experiential basis for metaphors in ordinary spoken expressions, as when one aspect of our concept of “love” is structured around the metaphor “love is a physical force.”

     We use expressions such as she’s devastating; he is strikingly handsome; I could feel the electricity between us; I just melted when he spoke to me; she’s giving off very sexy vibes (Johnson 1987: 7). These metaphors are so unmarked that ordinarily we don’t notice their metaphorical basis yet, as these authors’ numerous examples clearly demonstrate, such imaginative structuring forms the basis of entire conceptual systems (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). I most certainly agree.

     Understanding of our physical being emerges from daily experience as we begin to structure experience through patterned recurring relations between our environment(s) and ourselves. My disagreement lies in the notion that such experience and structuring take place preconceptually, and so are precultural.

     In their original formulation, Lakoff and Johnson draw attention to “orientational metaphors” that have to do with spatial concepts such as up/down, in/out, front/back and on/off (1980: chap. 4). Choosing to focus on the up/down dimension, they list a number of metaphorical expressions, and then suggest how each metaphorical concept might have arisen from physical experience. In doing so, they provide a “physical basis” for each set of metaphors. In their later work more sophisticated versions of these kinds of physical bases provide the experiential core of image schemata, i.e.,

HAPPY IS UP, SAD IS DOWN: e.g., I’m feeling up. That boosted my spirits. My spirits rose. I’m feeling down. He’s really low these days.

Physical basis: drooping posture typically goes along with sadness and depression, erect posture with a positive emotional state.

CONSCIOUS IS UP, UNCONSCIOUS IS DOWN: e.g., Get up. Wake up. He fell asleep. He sank into a coma.

Physical basis: humans and most other mammals sleep lying down and stand when they awaken.

HEALTH AND LIFE IS UP, SICKNESS IS DOWN: e.g., He is in top shape. Lazarus rose from the dead. He fell ill. He came down with the ‘flu.

Physical basis: serious illness forces us to lie down physically. When you are dead, you are physically down.

GOOD IS UP, BAD IS DOWN: e.g., Things are looking up. We hit a peak last year, but it has been all downhill since then. He does high-quality work.

Physical basis of personal well-being: happiness, health, life, and control—the things that principally characterize what is good for a person—are all up. (from Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 15–17)

While these physical bases are certainly plausible for speakers of English, I see no reason to accept these as natural because they are physical.12 Anything we do physically is an occasion for our interpretational resources. We use these physical metaphors (e.g., ‘drooping’ posture) to instantiate our concepts; we don’t adapt our concepts to a physical state. Walking along with a drooping posture or saying “I’m feeling down” are complementary metaphorical vehicles of “sadness” for English speakers. The shared ground or tenor that creates the metaphor is the idea that “sad is down,” not the physical expression of that idea.

     To say that a “drooping posture” provides a natural physical basis for talk about sadness and depression merely extends the spoken metaphor by naturalizing it into English speakers’ concepts of the body. The folk model thus mirrors a scientific model that assumes emotions are internal states of individuals and that they are felt physiological reactions to environmental stimuli subject to universality of physical expression. A growing literature in anthropological psychology, however, has shown this theory of emotion to be simply wrong—in the way that the phlogiston theory of combustion was wrong—it fundamentally misconstrues the nature of emotions and their role in human life.13

     Johnson’s later elaborations of gestalt structures (e.g., 1987: 45–48) do not escape the cultural constructions involved in making meaning out of physical experiences. Likewise, Lakoff’s exegesis of schemata fails to take into account the linguistic facts. As Whorf pointed out as long ago as 1941, it is a particular feature of Indo-European languages to “objectify” abstract ideas by turning them into entities with noun forms—it is not a universal. Any basic level perception of “interior, boundary, and exterior” or “wholes and parts” (Lakoff 1987: 272–74) is suffused with understandings shaped by the very grammar of our language.

     If we, as English speakers, experience “the body as a container” this is a function of talking about it that way, not the reverse. Wittgenstein (1958) argued this fundamental issue in relation to the problem of pain and private language. We experience things, including our own bodies, the way we do because as members of a culture, we have grown up hearing people, including ourselves, use precisely these metaphors to talk about it. Thus, the meaning of “physical force” doesn’t merely depend on “publicly shared meaning structures that emerge from our bodily experience of force”; rather, our bodily experience of force depends on the publicly shared meaning of “physical force.”

     Having identified these problems with Lakoff’s and Johnson’s efforts to embody our conceptions of metaphor, the task remains to construct a more fruitful alternative. A truly embodied conception of person requires a recontextualization of the role of embodiment in metaphorical utterances, and it is to this task that we will now turn.

Metaphors We Move By

Williams (1995: 72) has suggested that if we are to proceed from a scientifically valid basis in the cross-cultural comparison of human movement, it is necessary to posit some universally valid features of movement and the human body other than those offered by kinesiology and anatomy. Rather than looking for universal meanings attached to specific movements, however, this means identifying some structural characteristics of the expressive human body and the space(s) in which it moves.

     Instead of presenting the spatial dimensions of up/down, right/left, front/back, and inside/outside as “pre-conceptual image schemata,” Williams’s semasiological theory presents them as a set of potentialities that each culture will utilize differently. In other words, semasiology expects that all human beings will have concepts of up/down, right/left, front/ back, and inside/outside that have arisen from perceptual distinctions available to all humans.14 What those spatial dimensions mean, how concepts are organized, and the spoken or acted orientational metaphors based on them will vary from culture to culture. In conjunction with deictic features of spoken languages, they provide cultural resources that govern empirically observable actions (Williams 1995: 72).

     Turning now to an ethnographic focus, I will use examples from different action-sign systems to illustrate how a discourse about persons as embodied agents can be achieved using a semasiological approach. This involves investigating how semantic value is assigned to spatial dimensions and proceeding from a view of human movements as “action signs,” that is, as signifying acts done with movement—analogous to speech acts as signifying acts done with sound. We shall see that human bodily movement is a medium open to semiotic processing just like any other, and so subject to being socially constructed through conceptual, imaginative, and metaphorical processes.

     In order to understand exactly how a metaphor in the medium of movement might be constructed and used, consider the following evocative description of action signs from the repertoire that comprises gender relations in Haiti:

The shoulders are seen as an expressive feature especially of women, both in the dances and in everyday social situations, but particularly in personal exchanges of negative emotions between women and men. A woman will turn in a certain way that puts her body at an indirect angle to the man she addresses, indicating that she wishes to put him aside and creating a temporary barrier by giving him the back of her shoulder. She may also lift her skirt to show part of a thigh and to accent the corresponding hip as confirmation that she makes this gesture specifically as a woman speaking to a man. At other times, the woman’s shoulders are drawn backward and the chest lifted slightly forward as an affirmation of womanly pride. (Martin 1995: 96)

In the first action sign described here, a woman’s turn of the shoulders has become the metaphorical vehicle of her desire to put the man aside. The action sign thus presents the tenor of this metaphor—the emotional barrier she wishes to maintain for the moment. According to I. A. Richards’s theory of metaphor, there must be “interanimation” between the tenor (the underlying subject of the metaphor) and the vehicle that presents it.15 In this case, we can see how the concept of creating an emotional barrier, of setting the man aside, is given physical shape through the act of presenting him with “the back of her shoulder” (reminiscent of her own metaphorical “giving him the cold shoulder”). The full meaning of a metaphor, Soskice reminds us (1985: 48), results from the complete unit of tenor and vehicle. The action sign is not by itself the ‘metaphor’ for the emotional barrier. Nor is the emotional barrier by itself the ‘meaning’ of the metaphor. It is artificial to separate them. Both are the unique product of the whole, and the point is not that this is a new description of something previously discerned, but that what is defined is only accessible through the metaphor.

     Gestural metaphors thus work in the same way as spoken metaphors. For example, a metaphorical application of the spatial concept “into” is utilized in the phrase “going into debt.” The metaphorical “into debt” is structured on a literal use of the spatial concept “into” in a spoken phrase (or action sign) such as “going into the kitchen.” While a kitchen is a bounded physical space that one can literally go into, a debt is metaphorically structured as a bounded spatial entity. In the same manner, in the Haitian woman’s action sign described above, the act of turning to “give him the back of her shoulder” is metaphorically structured from the literal action of turning to leave the scene.

     In situations that involve asymmetries of power (as is often the case in gender relations), speech may be construed as open defiance and be subject to direct repression. A metaphorical action sign such as this, without a spoken equivalent, may provide the freedom to express dissent, and its use may be an artful act of resistance. In this example, it is tempting to speculate that at least part of its power as a woman’s act lies in the very absence of a spoken equivalent.

     When body movements are viewed as action signs in this way, they become one kind of semiotic practice among others, all of which provide persons with a variety of cultural resources for the creation of meaning. Dances and rituals are replete with these kinds of metaphorical gestures and, as we shall see, frequently extend to include whole body action signs and metaphorical usages of the ritual or other performance spaces. As with spoken language, metaphor is a trope through which new vocabulary is created. Indeed, in dance traditions such as American modern dance, in which there is an ongoing emphasis on the production of new choreography, it is the eternal task of the choreographer continually to invent new metaphors with movement—or present movements that can be read as such by the audience—as it is the task of the poet to do so with words.

The Up/Down Dimension: Ireland

Returning to the up/down dimension, we will consider ways in which two contrasting dance traditions employ metaphors in movement as instances of concepts relating to ‘up’ and ‘down.’ Reporting on the striking upright posture of Irish dancing, Hall records, “The first time I saw Irish dancing I was struck by the power of the form. The posture was very much part of its aesthetic potency. The contrast between the stillness of the upper-half of the body and the often incredible movements of the lower-half was both impressive and curious” (Hall 1995: 90n3). In this dance tradition, the torso remains extended, the shoulders are back and the arms are held down by the sides throughout any and all dances. Consistent with long-standing moral overtones that embody “good bearing” as a physical and behavioral value of Western cultures, Hall notes how such moral overtones are frequently expressed in bodily and spatial metaphors.

     Spoken metaphors about “bearing up under pressure” and “being an upstanding citizen” thus contribute to the values attached to the vertical dimension in the danced form itself. These spoken terms contribute additional meanings to Lakoff and Johnson’s GOOD is up and CONTROL IS UP orientational metaphors mentioned above, which are common to speakers of English, in contrast to “breaking down,” etc.

     Hall maintains that such linguistic clues are but shadows of the physical education in civility and “good bearing” to which Irish children are subjected as they are admonished to “sit straight,” “stand straight” and “keep still” (Hall 1995: 87). More than this, however, and central to understanding the meaning of the posture is the intensely competitive context in which the dance form has evolved into its present form and its connections to Irish nationalism:

It is the marriage of competitive requirements and nationalist assumptions which produce the official world of Irish dancing and its multi-leveled concern with control, authority and authenticity. It is this world that selects for the posture of ‘good bearing.’ . . . The contrast in the upper and lower halves of the body—upper still while lower leaps, twists, turns and beats out rhythms on the floor—creates a powerful aesthetic which instantiates an Irish historical concern with control, authority and playful expression. (Hall 1995: 88 and 89)

Contrary to Lakoff and Johnson’s ideas, this “erect posture” has no connection with “a positive emotional state” as a “pre-conceptual bodily experience” that presumably provides a basis for spoken metaphors. This apparently simple action sign clearly acts as a complex trope in and of itself. The upright posture of Irish dancing is metaphorical of moral values and metonymic of nationalist authenticity and control.

     A further example from Haiti provides interesting data from a ritual context in which concepts about the vertical dimension are entirely the reverse of those held by English speakers.

The Up/Down Dimension: Haiti

Martin’s description of a Haitian Voudou ceremony describes how the open space of the ritual ground (peristil) is covered by a sheltering roof supported by poles. The center post (potomitan) represents the center of the universe, and the four peripheral supporting posts represent the cardinal points of the universe.16 Together, they define the conceptual space of the Voudouisants’ metaphysical world:

[T]he floor of the peristil symbolizes the profane world, while the vertical pole (potomitan) in the center of the peristil represents the axis mundi, the avenue of communication between the two worlds. Although the downward reach of the potomitan appears to be limited by the peristil’s floor, mythologically its foot is conceived to plunge into Vilokan, the cosmic mirror. The point at which the potomitan enters the peristil’s floor symbolizes the zero point. During the ceremonies, the potomitan becomes charged with or “polluted” by the power of the lwas (ancestral spirits). (Desmangles 1992: 105, cited in Martin 1995: 104; italics added).

In this belief system, then, ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ signifies the sacred domain. Martin goes on to explain that

[t]he potomitan signifies a vertical/horizontal cross (and intersection) of axes. The horizontal axis (the floor or ground out of which it arises) is the visible, moral world, while the vertical axis (signified by the potomitan itself) is the invisible, immortal world of the spirits (the lwa). The metaphor of a mirror, reflecting human and spiritual space, which includes past, present and future time, is applied at the point of intersection of these two imaginary axes. At certain times during a ceremony, Voudouisants may touch the potomitan or kiss the ground in recognition of these concepts. (Martin 1995: 106)

Desmangles adds, “A possessed devotee becomes a medium whose feet are planted in the sacred mirror and whose body is the vertical line whereby the revitalizing forces of the universe flow to the community” (cited in Martin 1995: 106).

     This being understood, it is not surprising to learn that the opening of a ceremony begins with the pouring of libations on the ground, and complex, intricate designs in ritual sand paintings depicting aspects of the spirits may be drawn on the ground before, during or after the salutations. In addition, the substances that make up an individual’s physical body are considered to be part of the earth (as sacred), which reclaims its elemental contributions through recurring cycles of life and death. In this ritual context at least, the systematicity found in an English speaker’s metaphorical uses of the up/down dimension no longer apply (e.g., GOOD IS UP; MORE is up; HAVING CONTROL IS UP; CONSCIOUS is up; HIGH STATUS IS UP; etc.). They are, in fact, reversed.

     In this Voudou ritual context there arises a metaphorical relationship between a Haitian dancer’s use of the downward pull of gravity and the mythological downward pull of the spirit world. “If the Voudouisant becomes an ‘ambulant axis mundi’ . . . then the central vertical axis of the dancer and the vertical axis of the potomitan could be seen as one and the same—at least so closely identified that, spiritually, they amount to the same thing” (Martin 1995: 106).

     The complexity of potential meanings to be found in the “natural” experience of gravity and the associated difficulties of translation across cultural boundaries are made especially clear in the following two statements:

1.  Theoretically if a dancer fully experiences gravity’s downward pull, he or she will also discover the equal and opposite upwards thrust that provides buoyancy—a quality also evident in (other) Haitian dances. However, it is said that the possessed person becomes “heavy” with the spirit. This weightiness is particularly evident in movements of the head, which is often pulled off-balance during possession (Martin 1995: 107).

2.  Those of us whose understanding and practice of Haitian dances and body language [have] “an American accent,” so to speak, often find it hard to achieve such an experience of gravity. This may be because of cultural conditioning towards standards of airborne flight, so highly prized in our indigenous forms of ballet and modern dancing. Or, it may be connected to our tendency to believe that if an application of physical force doesn’t seem to work; more force is the way to go (Martin 1995: 113n16, italics added).

These ethnographic facts effectively challenge the idea that experience of natural physical forces exists at a preconceptual level of perception to act as bases for spoken metaphors, as Lakoff and Johnson maintain.

     The up/down dimension is not the only important one in Haitian ritual tradition. Martin tells us how metaphorical action signs are also found in usages of the left and right hands:

The left side of the body is the sacred side. In an extension of the mirror metaphor, the left hand is the reflection of the commonly used right hand and is therefore symbolic of the chaotic order of the spirit world, opposite to that of the human world. Therefore the left hand is the hand that serves the lwa and transmits the spirit into the body of another person. When a woman presents an infant to the lwa, she carries the child on her left arm. (Martin 1995:105)

It would be a mistake to assume that metaphorical movement is specific to danced and ritual contexts, just as it would be a mistake to assume that spoken metaphors appear only in poetry. As we saw in the earlier description of the Haitian woman’s gesture, movement metaphors appear frequently in everyday gestures. They are particularly common in the gestures that accompany our speech. Abstract concepts and relationships are frequently expressed in gestural forms, and metaphoric gestures create visual images of such abstractions.

Conduit Metaphors

McNeill (1992: chap. 5) provides several useful examples of how culture-specific action signs made with the hands provide metaphors that integrate with and complement spoken language meaning. For example, in many Indo-European languages metaphors exist whereby concepts about language, meaning, and knowledge are presented as bound containers. These have been identified in linguistics as “conduit metaphors” (Reddy 1979 and Lakoff and Johnson 1980).17 An example would be the phrase “it’s hard to get my ideas across,” which implies that ideas are substances in a container and there is a conduit over which ideas ought to be passed. These notions of containers, substances and conduits are only implicit in the words, but metaphoric gestures often depict them through visual imagery.18

     McNeill (1992: 149) notes that when saying the phrase “I have a question,” an English speaker’s hand, held out toward the listener, might form a cup-shape with the palm upwards. The cupped hand forms a container for the question (substance) and is ready to receive an answer. We can say that the interaction here, between metaphoric gestural vehicle (the cupped hand) and the spoken topic (“ . . . a question”), means that both are altered by the metaphor; they reinforce each other and shape the tenor. Both media integrate to make meaning and, again, it would be a distortion to claim that the manual gesture in the utterance provides an experiential ground for the vocal gestures, as Lakoff and Johnson would have us believe.

     The importance of cultural differences in such abstract concepts is highlighted again in an interesting example taken from MacDougall’s film of Turkana people in northwestern Kenya (cited in McNeill 1992: 153). Turkana people also use metaphoric gestures to talk about abstract ideas, but organize such concepts quite differently.

     A Turkana speaker, for example, when explaining the difference between “Europeans” (viz., the filmmakers) and the Turkana said, “These Europeans want to extract all our knowledge—pft!” During the expletive part of the spoken phrase, he gestured with his left hand as if plucking something from his brow and releasing it into the air. Here, “knowledge” is again turned into an entity, but there is no boundary or container: it seems to rise up on its own and disappear like a puff of smoke or a bird, something that is capable of motion on its own (McNeill 1992: 154). McNeill notes that similar images of things moving up and dispersing appear in the gestures of other Turkana speakers. He acknowledges that we would need much more insight into the cultural beliefs of Turkana people to understand these gestures, but we can at least say that Turkana metaphoric gestures suggest concepts of abstract ideas very different from our own: “abstract concepts are not manipulated as they are in the conduit (metaphor), and may not be controlled by the individual personality, but are entities capable of moving on their own” (McNeill 1992: 154). This example also serves to remind us of the largely untapped resources for understanding other modes of thought and action that the inclusion of gesture and other action sign systems offers anthropology.

     A further example from my own research into the use of metaphoric gestures in (American) Plains Indian Sign Language, or Plains Sign Talk (hereafter PST), illustrates yet another cultural conception of abstract ideas like “knowledge.” In contrast to both Indo-European and Turkana speakers, Assiniboine speakers do not conceive of ‘thinking’ as being located in, or coming from, the head, but from the heart (cąté). This metaphor is common to both vocal and manual gestures in Assiniboine language practices.19 As I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (Farnell 1995a: 251–56), the PST sign glossed as TO THINK, instead of marking a place where ‘mind’ is located, moves the hand from the heart toward the social space of relationship, linking the space between speaker and listener (Fig. 1). This is not unimportant in this culture where people are defined, and define themselves, fundamentally in terms of social relationships. The Labanotation transcription in Figure 1 records that the sign is performed with the index finger of the right hand pointing forward and the palm down. This handshape moves from a location in front of the chest near the heart along a straight path forward. In spoken Assiniboine (Nakota) there exists no noun to translate as ‘mind’ in English, rather a series of verbs to do with different kinds of thinking/feeling.

Figure 1
Figure 1. A transcription in Labanotation of the PST sign glossed as TO THINK.

An interesting variation of this sign occurs in a videotaped performance of a traditional Assiniboine story made during my research at Fort Belknap, Montana, in 1988. The story is one of a genre that involves the Assiniboine trickster character Inktomi. During the narration, storyteller James Earthboy says in Nakota words, “So, he [Inktomi] sat thinking,” while simultaneously signing THINKING followed by SITTING (Fig. 2). The transcription shows the following actions:

THINKING: the right hand with index and second finger separated and pointing forward is held in the center of the signing space and makes small side-to-side movements in place for a moment. These small actions, along with the holding in space, mark the continuative form of the verb.

SITTING: the handshape changes to make a fist with the thumb-side uppermost. Holding the sign for a moment again indicates the continuative.20

Figure 2
Figure 2. “So he [Inktomi] sat thinking.” From Farnell 1995b: Inktomi and the Frog.

Had it not been Inktomi the trickster doing the thinking here, the handshape used would have been the standard pointing index finger described in Figure 1. However, because Inktomi, whose name always means “liar,” not only “speaks with a forked tongue” but obviously thinks with one too, the handshape changes and the two fingers make a forked handshape. The gestural metaphor here is polysemic: while the sign’s location remains metaphoric of thinking coming from the heart, the forked handshape, now metaphoric of Inktomi’s thinking, is itself metaphoric of the act of lying.

Figure 3
Figure 3. A still frame taken from a video illustrates the Asiniboine elder James Earthboy, making the PST sign INKTOMI/LIAR, a visual metaphor that refers to speaking sideways with a “forked tongue” if not telling the truth.

The PST sign INKTOMI also uses this forked handshape metaphoric of the stereotypic “he speaks with forked tongue.” The right hand is located in front of the mouth with the fingers pointing sideways and the hand makes a short motion to the left side (Fig. 3). This contrasts with the sign TRUTH in which the index finger points forward from the mouth and moves along a straight path forward in the signing space. Inktomi’s name sign and its opposite thus share metaphorical conceptions with English speakers for whom speaking the truth is also “being straightforward.” Outside of storytelling, the PST sign INKTOMI is synonymous with “liar” and can be used with or without speech to mean “you’re telling a lie” (iyąktomiç) or “you fooled him” (knaya). It can also be employed in a joking fashion by either perpetrator or victim whenever a person has tricked or is trying to trick another, or by observers when someone is playing the fool.

     Like many PST signs, this metaphor can function as a singular unit or in fully discursive signed utterances, with or without accompanying spoken expressions according to context. The Assiniboine live in Montana and Alberta, but far away at the southern end of the Plains in Oklahoma the Kiowa, whose spoken language belongs to an entirely different language family, refer to their own trickster character, Saynday, with the same sign.


I have argued that Lakoff’s and Johnson’s moves to embody the study of categories and cognition and to restructure traditional philosophical and linguistic approaches to semantics and rationality fall seriously short of their laudable goals. “Experientialism” provides a new foundationalism based on the conflation of ‘body’ with biological organism, which paradoxically fails to mediate the chasm between nature and culture. “Image schema” gives us a new strain of mentalist discourse without problematizing the consequences for human agency. In restricting body movement to the role of an experiential, preconceptual precursor to spoken concepts, Lakoff and Johnson continue the Cartesian agenda, excluding our physical being from the ivory tower of our conceptual systems.

     I have suggested an alternative conception for the embodiment of social theory. Once persons are conceived as embodied agents empowered to perform signifying acts with both speech and action signs, the way is clear to see the medium of movement as an equally available resource for meaning-making that can also be imaginative and metaphorical. The examples I chose to include were selected from a range of danced and ritual contexts, everyday gesture, and a sign language, but they only begin to show how our imaginative capacities are embodied directly through the myriad usages of action signs which are themselves tropes. This is not, of course, to claim that all physical action is so endowed, but neither does human physicality lie outside (below?) the sociolinguistic construction of human experience.

     Paradoxically, the privileging of visual modes of knowledge, which has dominated the sciences with emphases on observation, mapping, and making diagrams and charts, was rarely extended to the visual phenomenon of the moving body. It turns out therefore to have been a static visualism, well removed from the active bodies of observer and observed. Long-standing philosophical and religious reasons exist for the neglect of the body and human movement in the Western tradition that have deflected most social theorists from taking the embodiment of persons seriously. One of the major characteristics of what some have called ‘postmodern anthropology’ has been the rejection of visualism and the privileging of hearing over seeing.21 The dominant metaphors now urge us to think of a cultural poetics that is an interplay of “voices” (Tyler 1986; Clifford 1984). Yet the linguistic and interpretative turns that have moved us into a discursive rather than a visual paradigm would seem to be woefully incomplete if we are content to replace the participant observer with a participant auditor. While this may at least be a better staring point for a dialectical concept of ethnography, accounts of persons enacting the body remain absent.

     If, as Csordas (1989) suggests, we are about to enter a paradigm of embodiment, then social action without the action is no longer viable. In this paper I have indicated how, if we view persons using physical actions in the agentive production of meaning as one semiotic practice among others, we might be able to tackle what Giddens sees as the next major problem in social theory—how to connect saying with doing.


1 This essay, originally published under the same title in Visual Anthropology 8 (2–4) (1966): 311–36, is reproduced here with permission. Only stylistic changes have been made to the current essay.

2 See discussion and references in Farnell (1994).

3 See Turner (1984) and Featherstone et al. (1991).

4 The redundancy is deliberate; it is a famous “Yogi Berra-ism” (from U.S. baseball).

5 See Wilshire (1992).

6 Reversing the Cartesian center of privilege, as Merleau-Ponty and recent advocates of his work have tried to do through appeals to the subjective experience of the body as “lived” (e.g., Michael Jackson, William Hanks, Thomas Csordas), doesn’t offer an acceptable solution either because it merely relocates an equally ambiguous notion of agency in the body (see Varela 1994, 1995 and Farnell and Varela 2008).

7 See Williams (1979, 1982 and 1991) for explanation of “action signs” and their relationship to linguistic signs.

8 Of the new realism, Harré says,

To be a realist is to acknowledge an ‘aboutness’ in one’s discourse, a referential tie to something other than one’s own states. But for a scientific realist that something must include a realm of active beings both independent of oneself and partially known. For the physical sciences this other is the natural world. For the human sciences the other is more complex, since people live not only within a physical but also within a symbolic universe, the conversations of mankind . . . [I]n the end one’s adherence to scientific realism is an act of moral commitment rather than a wholly rationally grounded realization of some inescapable conclusion from incorrigible premises. That idea is part of the myth of the strict system. The actual ideal system is a network of human exchanges and practices based on a morality of trust. But it must also be grounded in a genuine and interpersonal experience of such aspects of the natural world as our evolutionary heritage has fitted us to take account of. The defense of scientific realism must in the end be based on a realist theory of perception. We cannot escape the obligation to delve into the metaphysics of human experience. (Harré 1986a: 145)

9 Harré examines critically the psychology of Thomas Reid and William Whewell and the reappearance of Reid’s theory in the cognitive science of Jerry Fodor, as representational theories of this kind.

10 See Gibson (1979).

11 Lakoff and Johnson thus join Merleau-Ponty in attempting to overcome Cartesian dualism by positing an original and primary bodily experience as a way of gaining access to the world and the object, without having to make any use of conceptual, symbolic or social function. For Merleau-Ponty, “the body” through habit develops its own form of understanding (192: 142–45) and has a unique form of intentionality not reducible to the intentionality of thought (1962: 137, 243). Merleau-Ponty fails to explain how this might work and simply claims it as an “ultimate fact.” See Varela (1994 and 1995) and Farnell (1994).

12 This easy fit reveals a typical bias in Western rationality to assume that anything we find plausible is true, especially if we naturalize it. The authors might have been more suspicious of this tendency to label as “natural” that which we find difficult to imagine differently in another culture. Anthropology has consistently shown that we can never assume that the limits of Western imagination are the limits of cultural variability!

13 Harré notes that studies of the huge variation in lexical resources for transforming felt bodily reactions into emotions have lent considerable support to the thesis that there are few if any universal emotions. See Harré (1986b: 6–7), Lutz (1988), Rosaldo (1980), Schweder and Le Vine (1984). Given the links between lexical resources and emotional categories found in these works it is surprising to find that Lakoff aligns his treatment of emotion with the simplistic “seven basic emotions” of Ekman et al. (1972), in which emotions are said to correlate with universal facial expressions. Oddly, Lakoff himself later cites Levy’s (1973) study of Tahitians who, in the absence of lexical terms and cultural nonrepresentation, must be said to lack the emotion of “sadness” (Lakoff 1987: 310).

14 These spatial dimensions are referred to as the “structure of interacting dualisms” in semasiological theory.

15 I. A. Richards (1936) introduced the analytic categories of ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle.’ Soskice (1985) discusses them in relation to Max Black’s critique in a very useful analysis.

16 These points do not, although they might in some cases, correspond with true geographical directions—an important analytical consideration, marking the distinction between a ritually “embedded space” and one that is not; see comparison between T’ai Chi Chuan and Catholic Mass in Williams (1995: 68–69).

17 This feature of Indo-European languages and the “objectification” of abstract ideas such as ‘time’ was first noted by Whorf (1956/1941). I find it odd that neither Lakoff and Johnson (1980) nor McNeill (1992) mention his important insights.

18 I do not hold to McNeill’s theory that “images” of these concepts are “implicit in the words” and that metaphoric gestures “depict the images directly.” This implies a mental arena in which images exist prior to or while we are acting. As mentioned earlier in the text, Wittgenstein decidedly put this “echo” theory of mind to rest in his critique of rules.

19 Spoken metaphors include cąté yukcʿa ‘thoughtful or considerate’; cąté oȟnóka ‘crazy fellow’; cąté knut’ok’ą ‘to change your mind.’ In Assiniboine thought, ‘thinking’ is not separated from emotion, and so the ‘heart’ metaphor applies to many words for feelings as well, e.g.,cąté sìca ‘to be sad’; cąté okihisį ‘to be unable to handle a situation’ or ‘a coward’; cąté wašté ‘to be kind,’ ‘good-hearted.’

20 The graphic signs from Labanotation transcribe the movement used in these action signs in terms of body parts used, spatial directions, timing and dynamics. Unlike the translation into words, they record in terms specific to the medium being used. Readers new to the idea of being literate in relation to body movement may be interested to note that it took 16 characters from the Laban script to write this action. It took 417 characters from the Roman alphabet and 70 words to make an approximate translation into words!

21 See Fabian (1983); Keller and Grontowski (1983); Rorty (1979).

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