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Drid Williams: The Australian Papers


Ceci n'est pas un "Wallaby"

Drid Williams

Figure 1
Figure 1: This is not a wallaby.

We begin with a re-statement of ideas made famous by the Belgian artist René Magritte, whose two paintings titled Ceci n'est pas un pipe (among others) have inspired and provoked critics, teachers, and scholars for several decades. Many readers will be familiar, too, with Foucault's controversial essay about the paintings titled This Is Not a Pipe (1982). I was drawn to the Foucault essay because he brings Saussurean notions of signifier and signified, la langue and la parole, and the notion of arbitrariness into the discussion in particularly cogent ways. He raises significant points about visual representation especially relevant to textual representations of human actions as in Figure 1. Modern analyses and re-descriptions of human action sign systems are concerned with signs and their objects in ways I believe to be central to fundamental issues of representation in visual anthropology, regardless of the forms they may take.

     The stretch of movement text (Figure 1) draws attention, first, to the fact that, in dealing with human movement, we are dealing with a different medium of expression (motion) from the spoken word (sound).1 We are confronted by a different medium of expression from that of painters and photographers, whose products are artifacts which, when completed, comprise the familiar 'frozen instants' of the sculptor, only in two-dimensional, not three- or four-dimensional forms.

     Second, Magritte's paintings point to the arbitrariness of the relationship between linguistic signs and material objects, concrete objects such as pipes. It is interesting to think of Magritte's paintings in terms of any tangible object, just as it is interesting to note that de Saussure, in partial explanation of the relationship of signifiant and signifié with regard to linguistic signs, used perceptible concrete objects as well. In the famous chapter from the Cours, we see not a pipe but a horse and a tree.2 It is intriguing to think of sign-object relationships when the object isn't a concrete object (a pipe, a horse, or a tree), but something like justice, sympathy, hope, or an idea, for example, "sister" or "father-in-law." The question is, what is the object of the movement-writing signs in Figure 1?

     The only concrete object in a Magritte or Saussurean sense represented in the movement stretch in Figure 1 is a male human body, but that body is performing action signs that pertain to a wallaby, one of the clan-totems of the Wanam people whose dance it is.3 An illustration of the Saussurean sign-concept relation may be helpful for readers who may be unfamiliar with it.

     Saussure was unwilling to separate sound images from their concepts, hence the use of arrows in connection with the egg-shaped diagrams. It was the indivisibility of sound image and concept that led him to formulate the principle of arbitrariness (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2.

Different Sign-Object Relationships

The relationship between the written movement text and its object in Figure 1, if it were merely a male human body, would be relatively simple; but the relationship between a movement text and human action signs is extraordinarily complex. Why? I repeat: the only tangible object the written symbols in Figure 1 represent is a male human body, not a wallaby's body, for a start.4 Knowing this, we could perhaps alter the caption to read, "This is not a wallaby: it is a human being." If the only relationship involved in written action signs and their objects was a relationship between signs and material objects, the amended statement would be true.

     But the signs don't refer to the human body as a material object. The written signs refer to a structured set of actions that a group of people in northern Queensland call "wallaby"; yet we know that the reference isn't to the animal but to a concept of the animal metonymically derived from hundreds of features possessed by a real wallaby. The Aboriginals' concept of the creature identifies it as a sign of the wallaby appropriate for men to perform in a dance by the same name.

     The movement text denotes the relationship between written signs and human concepts. Were we to compare other Australian Aboriginal action signs for the same creature, we could see there are different conceptualizations of the animal, different metonymic choices out of a possible field of choice identifying wallabies and not, for example, possums, crocodiles, brolgas, or parakeets.

     We might, therefore, amend the caption to read, "This is not a wallaby: it is a structured set of actions that identifies conceptually the notion of wallabies appropriate to a particular dance of that name." The truth of this caption is more accurate than "This is not a wallaby; it is a human being," which only points to the kind of material body that performs the written actions.

     Everything I've said so far has been aimed toward moving readers' thinking away from simple sign + material object relationships, toward more complex sign + noetic concept relationships. If we are really to understand what people are doing when they act from their conceptions of acting, which is what makes their movements different from those of animals, then it is necessary to prise our minds away from simple sign + material object relations. In his discussion of sign-object relations in Magritte's paintings, Foucault asks, "What is the relationship of the pipe represented in Magritte's painting to a real pipe?" Part of his answer reads like this:

Magritte's drawing (for the moment I speak only of the first version) is as simple as a page borrowed from a botanical manual: a figure and the text that names it. Nothing is easier to recognize than a pipe, drawn thus; nothing is easier to say—our language knows it well in our place—than the "name of a pipe." Now, what lends the figure its strangeness is not the "contradiction" between the image and the text. For a good reason: Contradiction could exist only between two statements. . . . But who would contend that the collection of intersecting lines above the text is a pipe? Must we say: My God, how simpleminded! The statement is perfectly true, since it is quite apparent that the drawing representing the pipe is not the pipe itself. And yet there is a convention of language: What is this drawing? Why, it is a calf, a square, a flower. An old custom not without basis, because the entire function of so scholarly, so academic a drawing is to elicit recognition, to allow the object it represents to appear without hesitation or equivocation. (Foucault 1982: 19–20)

     When we consider the combination of texts that begins this essay, we are into more difficulties than those Foucault outlines: (1) the relationship between the written spoken language text and the movement text isn't the same, because it's a relationship between two kinds of text. What we see in Figure 1 is a set of linguistic signs, that is, "This is not a wallaby," labeling a set of written action signs that elicit recognition of a wallaby, not in the sense of enabling us merely to recognize the animal but a human statement about the animal; (2) the movement text is strange because it isn't, like the pipe, the representation of a real object; and (3) there is a difference between that which a literate reader and a non-literate viewer of the text sees.5

     With regard to (1), the written Laban text is obviously just that—a written text. It doesn't simply represent a real Aboriginal male performing a stretch of moves from his Wallaby Dance. We think this is why many people find films and videotapes of dances, rather than movement-writing texts of dances, so comforting. Filmed representations of dances, ceremonies, etc., seem more familiar and easy to grasp because they retain lower-level sign-object relations familiar to us through other visual art forms. But in this case, we have to say with Foucault, "My God, how simpleminded!" Yet, there are conventions of our spoken language which we use all the time which permit us to say (imagining that we had the entire film of the Wallaby Dance) not only, "This is the Wallaby Dance"; we might even say, if we were one of the dancers, "I am a wallaby."

     With regard to (2), Saussure designated something he called a sound image: a signifier, a 'pipe,' a 'horse, 'a 'tree.'6 Similarly, a stretch of movement text is what semasiologists designate in body-language7 terms, "a movement image," which is also referred to as a signifier. What makes the sound image a coherent action is the assigned meanings given to it in this case by the Wanam people on Cape York Peninsula. What makes the sound image an action is the signified. In Saussurean terms, a sound image is tied to (and inseparable from) a concept, and the two elements together8 represent a linguistic sign. The signified of the movement image is a human concept of a wallaby, expressed in semantically laden actions which, together with the movement image, comprises an action sign.

     With regard to (3), a literate reader of the movement text is going to see several image schemas (as Johnson [1987: 28–29] would call them), of the set of actions performed by a male human being. A literate reader is going to see a mental image of performed actions. A non-literate viewer of the movement text is going to see an incomprehensible set of black marks, squiggles, and symbols on a page of paper. We are all familiar with this: if you see a stretch of conventional language written in a script you can't read, say, in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, or Swahili, a literate reader is going to see something quite different from that which a non-literate viewer sees.

The Literacy of Human Movement

Critics of semasiology have said, "But films and videos do the same things as paintings and linguistic texts—they solve the problems of representation for us. Moreover, we aren't obliged to go through the tedious process of learning to read and write yet another text." Semasiologists say films don't do the same things as a movement text, and they don't solve the problems of sign-object relations because they contend that a filmed version of a Wallaby (or any other) Dance, ceremony, martial art, or ritual is misleading in profound ways.

     A filmed version of the Wallaby Dance isn't the same kind of thing as a movement text (or 'score,' as it is sometimes called) of a dance. This assertion points to an issue that visual anthropologists seriously need to address, because there are many more anthropologists who remain unconvinced about the values of the literacy of movement and human actions than there are those who see that films and videotapes never were and never will be an adequate substitute for movement-writing texts and what they represent.

     Farnell (1989) succinctly enunciated the reasons for this in her paper for the Visual Research Conference in Washington, D.C., in 1989. Using the example of Evans-Pritchard's single photographic illustration of an entire wedding dance, she asked, "[W]here is the movement?" pointing out that still photographs of human actions provide "a serious stumbling block with regard to western ways of 'seeing' (or not seeing) human body movement" (1989: 1; for further discussion and a reproduction of the offending photo, see Farnell 1994). She says that, for many, "'movement' is conceived of as a series of positions of the body or its parts, such that a series of photographs, or positions of the limbs plotted on a two-dimensional graph, are deemed adequate records" (1989: 1–2). Furthermore, it is the case that

a written score of the movement offers the same kind of analytic possibilities in relation to human movement and the same kinds of revolutionary potential in intellectual reasoning and understanding about human actions that written texts have afforded in relation to spoken languages. The use of film and video instead of rather than in addition to written texts denies this possibility. They can indeed be said to bypass problems involved with the reading and writing and learning of a script, but in doing so, we must seriously question whether or not they also bypass the possibility of reaching new levels in our understanding of the complexities of human action and its significance in human life (Farnell 1989: 22).

If Foucault is to be believed, Magritte created sign-object heterotopias:

Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine [conventional] language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy syntax in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to but also opposite one another) to "hang together" (Harkness 1982: 4).

"Heterotopia" is a useful term, and I shall borrow it. Movement texts create heterotopias no less than Magritte's paintings did. To begin with, a movement text undermines the way we habitually think about human acts and actions because they force us, cognitively, to put images of moving human bodies acting as change agents into events and into our thinking about events in new and different ways. When we are confronted with a movement text, we can no longer live solely in a notionally abstracted world of words. Movement texts force our attention into the relations not only between words and tangible objects but into consideration of the relations between actions and bodies—our own bodies and those of others.

     Movement texts force consideration of the syntax of events and the syntax of the moves which were actually made. These don't always agree with the syntax of the spoken utterances which accompany them. Movement texts force us to think not only about gesture and/or actions but about space and ourselves in different ways.

     I wonder if the acquisition of movement literacy will ever be achieved as a disciplinary evolution of the kind Farnell suggests, or if it is going to stay where I think it presently exists: at the level of an implicit, largely unexamined conflict between two groups of people, each of whom perceives the other as a threat, although in very different ways.9


The literacy of movement is perceived by some (although not all) anthropologists as a threat. I've been acutely aware of this for years, ever since I produced the arguments for the credibility of Laban's script as a system of writing in 1972.10 At the time, there were those who argued that literacy was in principle hostile to the aims of preserving the wholeness and unspoiled nature of rituals, dances, and ceremonies, the realm of the so-called nonverbal.11 Somehow, because signing (Farnell 1995a and Kendon 1995) now qualifies as language in ways that dancing (Kaeppler 1995), ceremonializing (Williams 1995), movement improvisation (Puri and Hart-Johnson 1995) or fighting (Macdonald 1995) still do not, the notion of literacy is acceptable in signing contexts but unacceptable with regard to other structured systems of human action.12

     I didn't believe then, nor do I now, that there are clear, undeniable counter-arguments to the position that movement literacy is a threat, because I too think it is. Why? Because literacy alters the consciousness of the individuals who acquire it. No movement writer or reader sees movement and human actions in the same ways that non-literate persons do.13 I believe this to be as true of spoken language literacy or music literacy as it is of movement literacy. Furthermore, the effects of a literate consciousness can be regarded as freedom (or the reverse) depending upon (1) what view of human beings is held, (2) who employs the writing system, and (3) for what reasons—all of which draws attention to the many moral, ethical, and political dimensions of the issue; (for further discussion, see Raymond 1982).

     Farnell and I are quite clear about these points in a text and workbook we recently wrote for non-dancers. We tell students they

are expected to think about themselves moving in space and others moving in space in ways which will be, on the whole, entirely new. . . . [F]or most of us, our bodies are the focal points of long (and very different) personal histories for each of us which include admonitions about 'good behavior,' appropriate and inappropriate movements and emotional associations of all kinds (Williams and Farnell 1990: iv)

and that students "will also notice a gradual change begins to occur in their own orientation to three-dimensional space. It will quickly become apparent, for example, that the possibility of reading and writing movement . . . will heighten the awareness of their own bodies in space as well as those of others" (Williams and Farnell 1990: 28).

An Unpacked Kinetogram

Since I have been honest about the fact that movement literacy alters the consciousness of those who acquire it, I will admit that I aim for the stretches of movement-writing upon which this paper is based to be disorienting and consciousness-altering as well.

     Let's look at the movement text in Figure 1 again. What can we say to summarize the relevant features of what we see? Here is a stretch of movement text with a spoken language caption, "This is not a wallaby." The caption under the movement text isolates one kind of relationship between words and things with which Magritte and Foucault were preoccupied, but in a different way: the movement text is another kind of text in its own right. It is certainly not a drawing of an object.

     Still, the spoken language caption below the movement stretch does serve to identify the unfamiliar text above it on the page in certain ways. According to age-old conventions, we are informed by the caption that the unfamiliar symbols written above it have something to do with a wallaby; however, if we aren't able to read the movement text, we lack the means to envision what the symbols signify.

     Faced with this kinetogram,14 we can easily recognize that the collection of intersecting lines, symbols, and squiggles comprising the movement text not only is not a wallaby, but it doesn't even look like a wallaby. In order to duplicate his famous pipe paintings with another to match our caption, Magritte might have painted an academically perfect representation of a wallaby—or he might have painted an Australian Aboriginal man in a squatting position. I don't know what Magritte would have painted. I do know the kinetogram presents a more complex conundrum than his paintings of pipes do because the movement text doesn't "elicit recognition," except to someone who can read it; and even then it provides the reader with an image of a set of human actions—not an object of the same class as a pipe or a wallaby—or even a human being. The kinetogram doesn't immediately "allow the object that it represents to appear without hesitation or equivocation," as Foucault points out, as a painting of a wallaby or of an Aboriginal dancer would do.

Frozen Frames

Furthermore, Magritte couldn't have painted one physical object of any kind that would adequately represent the movement text. The best he could do in his form of visual representation would be to paint a representation of a male human being standing in an erect position, arms hanging down by his sides—that is, if he started from the initial position indicated in the text before any danced actions start. The visual representation not only would have nothing to do with a wallaby, it would represent a man standing in an erect position. Would not the caption then be wrong? Should it not read, "Ceci n'est pas un homme" [This is not a man]? But, we would further have to say that not only does the text not represent "a man" in terms of a static representation of a male human being, the whole text signifies a short stretch of movements from a northern Queensland Aboriginal dance that together signify a wallaby, which is a kind of emblem of the man who performs the dance.

     We are faced with two separate issues here: Magritte or any other painter would be faced with a laborious process indeed if he or she were to set about trying to paint the whole of the movement stretch. We would have perhaps forty or fifty paintings in a series, each showing a static pose or posture of the person. "But," you say, "we don't need to do that; we can simply use modern technology and film the sequence. That way, we have hundreds of frames of each part of the move, and when we show them on a screen, the image of the man would appear to move in the way the text indicates. Not only that, we can freeze the projector onto any single frame."

     Yes, we can do that, and let's suppose momentarily that we have; suppose I now show you a film clip and say, "This is not a wallaby." Would you agree? Doubtless you would: a film clip is not a wallaby, nor is it a man, and we all know that. Now I am really being simpleminded in Foucault's sense. You may remind me (more or less charitably) that it's owing to a convention of language that we attribute the identity of a person to a piece of celluloid or to a piece of paper with black lines and squiggles on it. You might ask, "Why make such a fuss about all this? After all, it's just semantics." But, because we are socio-cultural anthropologists, we know the vicissitudes of fieldwork and the tyranny of circumstance in the field; consequently, we make the fuss in the long-term interests of the discipline. We know, for example, that the film clip may have been shot from behind the fellow in the dance, or maybe he was behind someone else or a tree; therefore, we don't really know what his hands were doing. We are faced with a tyranny of situational circumstance in the field and with the additional tyranny of the camera's spatially fixed lens.15

     A movement text, unlike the film or videotape, permits us to see four-dimensionally and to see "around corners," so to speak. We can even reproduce the action with our own bodies if we wish. Nothing is lost.16 In spite of all this, there are those who obstinately continue to argue that having the film clip means that we don't need movement texts. Pushed to the wall, they would go farther and say that it is simply tedious to bother with learning the script so that they can produce the writing anyway. This is what Farnell meant when she said that there are those who want films and video instead of movement-writing.

More Commonly Used Action Signs

Those of us who want film clips in addition to movement texts would certainly try for having both, but if we were pushed to the wall, we would choose the movement text instead of the film because it is a more accurate method of recording and analysis. People don't pose for a movement writer, among other things.17 One avoids the fear of seeing images of one's body (Carpenter 1995). We would also want visual anthropologists to reach the new levels of understanding with regard to the complexities of human actions that movement literacy provides.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Ceci n'est pas un crucifix [This is not a crucifix].

Foucault says, "Magritte names his paintings in order to focus attention upon the very act of naming" (1982: 36). I've named the kinetograms used in this paper in order to focus not only on the act of naming, but on the human act of signifying in a medium other than sound.

     I name the stretches of movement-writing in order to focus attention upon the act of identification and naming, which is the function of an action sign no less than it is the function of the written words which accompany it. The choice of written examples of human actions for this paper, like the one written for the 1988 American Anthropological Association conference,18 is meant to counteract familiar explanations of what human movement is all about.

The point of my rather sketchy analysis . . . has been clearly to illustrate the difference between empirically perceivable, transitive structures (the 'visible') and nonempirically perceivable, intransitive structures (the 'invisible'). Such universals as I have pointed to are the 'gear,' so to speak, that all moving human beings possess, and that any investigator needs to know in order effectively to carry out cross-cultural comparisons of human-movement systems. Haviland implies that McNeill (1979) and McNeill and Levy (1982) ". . . seem to suggest that the conceptual structure that underlies gestural production is in some ways also the deepest structure that underlies spoken language as well" (see Haviland 1986: fn. 16, p. 236). If that is the case, then the conceptual structures of human actions postulated by semasiology must be those to which McNeill and Levy refer. (Williams 1995: 72–73)

The point of the Phoenix paper (Williams 1995) is that there are intimate relations between speech, actions, and space, so intimate that they cannot usefully be separated, yet we remain chained to low-level social scientific models of explanation, to a Cartesian dichotomy of body and mind, and to anachronistic, reductionist, 'scientific' notions about ourselves as nothing but biological organisms, sans language, sans culture and everything that goes with it. In Western biomedicine, for example, the body is considered separate from the mind and is seen as a kind of 'machine,' a network of purely physical processes, having 'functions,' true, but basically mindless functions. The 'behavior' of this body in that context is believed to be best understood by grasping the nature of its individual physical parts. Classical physics and mechanics tend to see the body in the same way, and the notion of a 'real body' (without a mind) is a product of classical deterministic physics.19

     Partly because of the traditional view we have of the human body, we persist in confusing the body itself with the actions it performs and the movements it makes, although we don't confuse the sounds we make with the vocal cords. There are those who seem frightened by the prospect of what we might lose through making body languages literate, and there are some who seem to feel threatened by the idea of conceiving of human bodies as signifying agents in movement as well as speech.

     With the written version of the sign of the cross (see Figure 3), I have introduced a familiar action sign which everyone knows into the same unfamiliar, unknown (but not unknowable) space in which we have already found a man and a wallaby. People can still distance themselves from the wallaby stretch, saying they are not dancers nor are they Australian Aborigines, disclaiming any connection between their own selves and the self the text represents. They can distance themselves from the sign of the cross or the crucifix, too, by saying they aren't Catholics—or Protestants, Jews, atheists, or agnostics; but if they do so, they will have missed the point of my discussion so far.20

     The requirement for understanding the crux of the issue is to recognize that any stretch of movements by any human being anywhere could illustrate the points I'm trying to make because, to begin with, I'm talking about the acts and actions themselves, not physical bodies. Although acts and actions can have political repercussions, religious affiliations, numerous levels of intention and such, and we can have emotional responses to—or personal likes and dislikes about—any given set of actions, as investigators, we should exercise care beyond that expected of lay people. If we do not, we risk becoming confused ourselves, or our work simply becomes a nuisance to others.

     Ultimately, the core of this whole discussion is to recognize that there are irrevocable connections between spoken language and human actions and the spaces in which they occur. Spatial points of reference are points of application for linguistic predicates—an axiom in semasiology. Between sentences and actions, one can identify relations and specify characteristics of both that are generally out of awareness in everyday life, but consciousness of these is crucial to accurate anthropological analysis. Consider the familiar fact that sometimes gestures take the place of spoken utterances: I can say "the sign of the cross," or I can perform it. In performing the action, we do not suddenly become 'non-verbal organisms' without language.

     Why do we separate what we say and do in discussions about human nature when we don't separate words and movement when we are actually talking and acting? Again, I am being simpleminded, but we do talk like this all the time. When we say "the sign of the cross," we think of ourselves as 'verbal' creatures. When we perform the action, we somehow (perhaps through accidents of analysis and ease of classification) conceive of ourselves as 'non-verbal.' The distinction between 'verbal' and 'non-verbal' really doesn't mean anything more than the fact that we are by nature language-using, meaning-making creatures: 'verbal' creatures who are sometimes silent when we gesture, dance, sign, fight, or whatever.

     When the action sign in Figure 3 is performed, the body gestures take the place of an image of a real crucifix or 'cross.' Gestures and actions can take the place of words in reality and the reverse. A sequence of gestures or a single action can take the place of words in a proposition, as in Nakota language (Farnell 1995b: 4). In a stretch of movement-writing, one sees words and spoken language differently. Given the conditions of literacy, one sees human actions differently than one ordinarily sees them.

     Why do we call this sequence of moves, that is, Symbols 6, a sign of the (Roman Catholic) cross?21 Why not this sequence: Symbols 7,22 or this one: Symbol 8?23 There are only so many formal possibilities. The technology of Laban's script takes the field of human-movement studies out of the unenviable position of non-literacy in a literate scholarly world, but it is ironic that it has done so in a climate that is frequently inhospitable to literacy of any kind.


In agreement with semasiological theory, Johnson says,

[The] central theme thus has been that a theory of meaning rests on a theory of understanding, which is a theory of cognitive models—of their structure, extensions, transformations, and relations. A theory of rationality thus would depend upon such an enriched theory of meaning, for all our reasoning is done within such cognitive models and by means of patterns for manipulating and relating them. (Johnson 1987: 193)

An "enriched theory of meaning" would have to include the cognitive models that are accessible to use with reference to other mediums of human expression, and it is that kind of model of what human actions consist that semasiology provides.

     Johnson points out too that objectivists try to get by with such impoverished notions of understanding that they can in effect disregard anything beyond some allegedly transparent notion of grasping truth conditions—solely in the case of sentences and propositions. An objectivist's stance24 with reference to human-movement studies is based on similarly impoverished notions of understanding as well. A personal anecdote is relevant here.

     Six months after arriving in Australia in 1986, I was treated to a prolonged display over three days of approximately twenty-six film clips of varying length and diversity on Aboriginal dancing. The most highly prized of the lot was a short stretch of a man dancing somewhere in the Torres Strait Islands at the turn of the century. No one seemed to know what the name of the dance was. I recall looking at this, and all of the films, with mixed feelings, because I wasn't sure of the purpose of the extended viewing sessions. The films were offered with no accompanying explanatory materials, except for a few titles and credits. There were no written explanations by the investigators who had taken them. Apparently, the notion that film documentation by itself is enough has been around for a long time. It is a misconception that appears to be worldwide.25

     At the end of the first day, I felt like someone who had listened to a series of lectures in several foreign languages. At the end of the second day, I had exhausted all comments I could make regarding structural descriptions of the seemingly endless stream of filmed movements I saw. At the end of the third day, I was exhausted and (to be honest) overcome with boredom.

     The only possible analysis that I (or any other 'expert') could have carried out on all of that material was a kinelogical analysis, equivalent to a phonological type of analysis in linguistics. That, of course, wasn't what it was hoped I could do. I think it was hoped that I could supply explanations involving the meanings of the filmed dances, which is impossible, of course, without (1) understanding the body languages involved and (2) comprehending the cognitive structures of understanding by which meanings in dances are made possible. I came out of that three-day session firmly convinced of one thing: we cannot ignore indexicality, metaphorical projections, metonymy, and movement-literacy if we want to explain the meanings of dances, ceremonies, rituals, sign languages, and all the rest.

     We cannot ignore the fact that we have to understand what is written or filmed if we aim to explain semantic changes in dances, rituals, martial arts, sign languages, and the like over time. Understanding involves more than a mere tracing of connections and historical sequences and certainly more than simple descriptions. Understanding requires a considerably more sophisticated notion of the body than a network of physical processes having functions that we can interpret unambiguously in any way we choose. We also have to accept the fact that viewers of documentary films aren't going to understand the films unless we provide them with the means to do so.

     Being able to read and write movement doesn't solve all of the problems involved in doing anthropology, of course, but I am convinced that movement literacy does provide the means to understand the complex nature of the cognitive structures connected with movement and meaning.

Back to Square One

But, like wealth, literacy of any kind creates its own opposite: non-literacy (Raymond 1982). I have no illusions about which is popularly considered more desirable these days. I also have no illusions about the fact that many people who are highly literate with regard to their own and other spoken languages look upon body language and alleged 'non-verbal communication' as a precious area of non-literacy (and illiteracy) into which they can retreat as an antidote for their literacy which, at worst, some of them deplore and which, at best, they feel guilty about, because they see themselves as the 'haves' instead of the 'have-nots.'

     Indeed, some of my acquaintances (and many writers) view human actions and the body as the last bastion of the natural, the unspoiled, the primitive, the unconstrained, fanciful, and romantic kingdom of unfettered emotions, which, I suppose, is why it is called "non-verbal" communication. Rationality, traditionally connected with 'the verbal,' surely can't be connected with this domain, which has been assigned to the irrational—or so the thinking goes. One simply wonders why the myth persists when there has been a distinguished line of philosophers, linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others who, starting with Langer in 1942 and including Wittgenstein, Johnson, Winch, Harré and Madden, and Best, have demonstrated that this kind of thinking is both wrong-headed and shortsighted.26

     There is no doubt that everything I've ever said about human-movement studies threatens objectivist separations of body and mind. I am convinced that the strongest, most persuasive concrete evidence that a movement analyst can supply about movement is a written text of the rite, the martial art, the sign language, or other structured system of human actions under examination. A movement text represents the facts and factors of the moves themselves through which theorizing can be tested. Such a text also provides an opportunity to see the actions without the actors.

     Evans-Pritchard was aware of the significance of this kind of thing. In fact, he told me he was sorry that the technology for movement-writing had been so late in coming. He saw great potential value in the future of an anthropology whose practitioners could read and write movement. He pointed out what he felt to be lacks in his own work, not in the sense of inept descriptive prowess in standard ethnographical writing (for he was a master of that), but "lacks" in the sense that he felt that a conventional language text by itself was deficient in important ways.

When I think of the sacrifices I have witnessed in Nuerland there are two objects I see most vividly and which sum up for me the sacrificial rite. The spear brandished in the right hand of the officiant as he walks up and down past the victim delivering his invocation, and the beast awaiting its death. It is not the figure of the officiant or what he says which evokes the most vivid impression, but the brandished spear in his right hand.

     We have noted that the lam or invocation states the intention of the sacrifice. Its words are a projection of the will and desire of the person as he turns towards Spirit; and an essential part of the action is the brandishing of the spear. As the officiant walks up and down delivering his oration the movements of the spear in his right hand emphasize his words; opening and closing his fingers on it, poising it in his hand, raising it as though to strike, making little jabs with it into the air, pointing it towards the victim, and so on. These movements are an integral part of the expression of intention, and there is more in the action than meets the eye. (Evans-Pritchard 1956: 23; italics supplied)

Evans-Pritchard would have liked to have had a written text of one or more Nuer sacrificial invocations, not only so that other people could see the Nuer sacrificial rites in a more real sense but because, as an ethnographer, he would have liked to have been able to compare features of one invocation with another. He would have liked to subject the movement texts to the same kinds of rigorous analysis that he brought to bear on conventional language texts. It would indeed be marvelous if we had such texts available to us now.

     Such texts as we do now possess27 represent more than a simple stockpile of ethnographic data. They open windows to a world of different apperceptions of ourselves and others in many important ways. They point to a potential valuable source of theoretical and methodological capital in socio-cultural anthropology. Their writers, however rashly, persist in drawing attention to the values of movement-literacy and to the combined studies of anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy of science; thus, we are encouraged to examine our own usages of language, (spoken or body language), and to recognize

the essentially circumstantial, conventional, historical nature of the bond between the signifier (e.g. a word) and the signified (the object or concept represented). In Saussurean linguistics, words do not "refer" to things themselves. Rather, they have meaning as points within the entire system that is a language—a system, further, conceived as a network of graded differences. "Dog" is not somehow attached to the real animal, arising naturally from it and participating magically in its essence or presence. Instead, "dog" has conceptual signification insofar as it evokes an idea that differs from words such as "bark" (verb) or "furry" (adjective) and thus cannot take their places in a proposition; and it has phonetic signification insofar as it differs from more or less similar sounding signifiers such as "bog," "dot," "dig," and so on. (Harkness 1982: 5)

Semasiologists affirm the essentially conventional, socio-historical nature of the bonds between signifier and signified too. In our technical terminology, action signs do not 'refer' to the 'things' themselves, as I have tried to illustrate with the stretch of text from a Wallaby Dance (Figure 1) and the sign of the cross (Figure 3). Action signs too have meaning as units within the entire system of the body language to which they belong. A system of body language is "a network of graded differences" no less than conventional spoken language.

     The sequence Symbols 9 isn't attached to a real wooden cross, arising naturally from it and participating magically in its essence or presence, although some may believe that this action sign does possess such properties. Instead, that action sign has conceptual signification because it evokes an idea that differs from the idea of Symbols 10 or from any of the other possible permutations of the sign (that is, touching forehead, left shoulder, chest, right shoulder; or touching chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, then forehead), which make no sense as action signs, in that they possess no established, conventional meanings.

     In contrast, the two signs immediately above are the Roman sign of the cross and the Orthodox sign of the cross. They differ only with regard to which shoulder is touched first. Here we have an analogy to the British English spellings of, say, 'centre,' 'metre,' 'litre' or 'theatre' versus American English spellings, 'center, ' 'meter,' 'liter,' 'theater.' These linguistic signs mean the same but are spelled differently. The Orthodox and Roman signs of the cross likewise mean the same but are, so to speak, 'spelled' differently.

     Symbols 11 (the Roman sign of the cross) possesses syntactical signification, just as the phrase "sign of the cross" has syntactical signification, in contrast to these phrases "of cross sign the" or "sign the of cross," which have no syntactical signification. Moreover, the sign has further significance in different systemic contexts, as in the Dominican Tridentine Mass (Williams 1994), where it differs from the action sign written in Figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4: The body gesture in persona Christi.

     The sign of the cross differs from but is strongly connected with more or less similar-looking signifiers such as

Figure 5
Figure 5: The celebrant's final blessing.

     Semasiology depends upon an analogy to spoken language throughout. Perhaps we are too eager to force an awareness of action signs and the human signifying body into discussions of the relationship of languages to the world. On the other hand, perhaps we are re-introducing elements into the human-movement studies that have been lacking for some time in other areas of visual representation.

Major schools of traditional Western thought were unable definitively to separate (spoken) language from its objects. Similarly, classical painting—using techniques ranging from perspective to trompe-l'il—attempted to identify scenes or images with the "models" that inspired them. As Foucault notes, however, such a theory of representation reintroduced discursive affirmation into a space from which it had supposedly been ejected. Into the painting, in theory an exclusively visual production, there creeps a secret, inescapably linguistic element; "This painted image is that thing." How to banish resemblance and its implicit burden of discourse? (Harkness 1982: 8; italics supplied)

Films and videotapes, no less than paintings, are in theory exclusively visual productions. How do linguistic elements creep into them? What kinds of unexamined theories of representation do we habitually apply to human movements and actions?

     Convinced behaviorists and objectivists often tell us there is a bond between human movements and the natural world that is fundamentally genetic, natural, and instinctive. Spoken language is frequently discarded or neglected in favor of body languages, construed as real in a rather mystifying sense, as if human actions had nothing to do with conventional languages.

     Semasiologists live in a much less comfortable world than this. We can't proceed from the notion that bodily movement, sans language, sans culture, sans literacy, is some kind of transparent sign of objective reality in virtue of the forms of biological similarities that human physical bodies have with other sensate beings. Thus, we create heterotopias of action sign texts and analyses that are undoubtedly at cross-purposes with some of the utopias inhabited by those who seek natural, preliterate similarities in body languages.

     We know that the semantics of human body languages aren't universal, although there are structural universals, that is, "semantic primitives" (Williams 1995), upon which they are based.28


1 We make the distinction between mediums of expression by using the phrase 'action signs' instead of 'linguistic signs.'

2 See de Saussure (1966: 65–68) for complete discussion.

3 These people reside between Aurukun and Edward River on the Carpenteria side of Cape York Peninsula, northern Queensland, Australia. Field work was done in 1988 by Drid Williams and Ronne Arnold (Arnold 1991).

4 Another text might be, say, a stretch from Swan Lake, the Swan Queen's solo, in which case the sign-object relations would be somewhat different. Readers can, I'm sure, adduce their own examples.

5 See Ong (1982) for a thoughtful analysis of literacy with regard to conventional language.

6 Readers will notice I use the older, Baskin translation of the Cours. I do so for the same reasons John Sturrock does, i.e., "In his translation of the Cours, Roy Harris translates significant and signifié as 'signal' and 'signification' respectively. This is a break with the (admittedly short) tradition in English of translating them as 'signifier' and 'signified.' Harris does not justify this novelty. . . . The terms 'signifier' and 'signified' seem to me to have the advantage over those suggested by Harris of strangeness and of having been created for the actual purpose of analysing a linguistic or other sign. The contrast between them is stronger than that between 'signal' and 'signification,' which are terms familiar from other contexts and therefore liable, I believe, to produce confusion" (Sturrock 1986: 32n17).

7 Not, in semasiology, to be associated with the absurd, popularized notion of body language in Fast (1970).

8 Not dichotomized, as Harris, Derrida, Culler, and their followers seem consistently to insist upon.

9 Another important question is whether the literacy of human movement can be seen as a similar evolution of human consciousness as the literacy of the spoken word represents with regard to noetic structures of the human mind.

10 At the time, I was also aware of the fact that many Western dancers, teachers, and chorographers looked upon movement literacy as a threat to emotion or spontaneity as well. I'm still unsure why this is so.

11 The terms 'wholeness' and 'unspoiled' are admittedly fuzzy and unclear, but they are words used by my critics; therefore, I'm stuck with them. I have yet to get anyone clearly to articulate the foundations for these fears. I think Carpenter (1995) touches on the crux of the problem which has to do generally with self-knowledge and self-awareness, but he treats the subject in physiological, rather than anthropological, terms, which I find ultimately unhelpful.

12 This is a relatively recent development, and I'm aware that sign language had great difficulties for many years, too. Recent reports by graduate students that sign languages aren't accepted as 'real languages' by some American departments of linguistics and anthropology are discouraging, to say the least.

13 Texts require interpretation; they "actualize potential meanings . . . submerged in the text, making the text more fecund than oral utterances can normally be" (Ong 1982: 175).

14 A 'kinetogram' (pronounced kain-ET-o-gram) is any stretch of movement text, such as those presented in this paper. A whole text is sometimes called a "score," likening it to a music score.

15 See Page (1990) for fuller discussion of this.

16 There are those who would argue, of course, that something is lost, because the film is not a substitute for the real dance or for the empathetic sharing of emotion, etc., which occurs during a live performance.

17 They don't 'pose' because there is nothing to pose for. All the writer has is his or her own body, a pencil, and a sheet of graph paper.

18 See Williams (1995), in which I suggest that the semantic primitives of spatial dimensions and our bodies, expressed in words, form the interface between spoken language and body language.

19 The notion of the body that must be developed in semasiology is very different. Our analytical procedures require the body to be seen as a 'signifying body' existing in a kind of field consisting of a timeless state of no energy—as a superposition of possibility in a mathematical framework of all theoretically possible moves that it could make, with equal probabilities of realization, until an actual 'move' or 'act' takes place, at which point a choice has been made in a field of complementarities or 'processes' which manifest themselves as empirically visible acts. Although the body has equal probabilities of realizing actions out of a theoretical field of possibilities, not all possible actions are ever realized. One of the determining factors here is the hierarchical system of values which the particular culture places on spatial dimensions, movement, and gestures, bodily parts, etc.

20 A comment was actually made by a member of the audience at the 1982 conference of social anthropologists in Durham, UK, to the effect that my talk about this action sign was irrelevant to non-Catholics or 'non-believers.' She apparently found the combined notion of literacy and movement so disturbing she had to clutch for straws (Williams 1982).

21 Fully written out, this stretch would appear thus:Symbols 10. It is tiresome, however, to repeat the whole each time, hence the abbreviations.

22 This pattern is a zig-zag.

23 This pattern is an open-sided diamond.

24 By 'objectivism,' I mean the same thing as Johnson does, i.e., "the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appear in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness or rightness" (1987: 196).

25 Tied to this misconception is another: that of the universality of movement. While it is true that human movement is 'universal' in the sense that all (living) human beings move, it isn't true that their movements, even those which appear to be the same, mean the same. In general, people understand the need for translation of conventional languages, but we don't see the need with regard to body languages (see Chapman 1982: 133–34, for apposite discussion).

26 Readers who are interested in the conceptual errors involved in phenomenologists' attempts to transcend the eradication of the body and its movements from social theory should see Varela (1995 and 1996). For those interested in semasiology's connections with linguistics, see Urciuoli's admirable discussion of performativity, indexicality, and the signifying act (1995).

27 As, for example, those produced by Farnell on Nakota sign talk; Williams on the Dominican Mass; Hart-Johnson on Martha Graham technique; Puri on the Indian hasta mudra system; Hall on Irish dancing; Fairbank on minority dances in China; Baty-Smith on a Philippine dance, Tinikling; Arnold on jazz dancing (and one or two Wanam dances); and others.

28 An earlier draft of this paper was presented to The Society for Visual Anthropology at the American Anthropology Association Annual Meetings, November 1990 in New Orleans. It was used by Brenda Farnell in a "Movement Writing Workshop for Non-Dancers" at the same meeting. In addition, this article was first published in 1996 in a special issue of Visual Anthropology, "Signs of Human Action," edited by Drid Williams. Reprinted with permission

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