Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement | Vol. 24 No. 2 | DRID WILLIAMS: Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts: New Ways of Thinking about Human Movement: Chapter 1: Introduction

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Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts: New Ways of Thinking about Human Movement


Chapter 1: Introduction

"Taste your legs, sir; put them to motion."
                            Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, III.i.88

My aim in this book is to provide an intelligible, orderly account of a new way of thinking and talking about the movements people make in their everyday lives and in formal systems of human action (sign languages, dances, the martial arts, rituals, ceremonies, dramatic performances—any kind of movement-based system). The name given to these ways of thinking about movement thirty years ago was (and still is) 'semasiology.'1

            There are five required fundamental shifts of viewpoint involved with understanding semasiology. None are easy. First is the combined idea of signifying acts made by moving, human, signifying bodies. Second is the idea that conventional language is simply one action sign system among many, based upon a shared conviction that sound and movement are equal but parallel modes of human expression. In the real world, movement and sound rarely, if ever, function in isolation from one another. Third is an out-and-out rejection of all forms of behaviorism along with the positivistic ways of thinking about the body that supports them. Fourth is some understanding of the panchronic zone of explanation. The fifth requirement is acceptance of the fact that the ways human beings move are constantly and intimately tied to the spatiolinguistic contexts in which they live.

            "So," someone asks, "who doesn't believe that, and what difference does it make anyway?"

Actions, not Movements

The difference it makes is summarized below: la and 2a are verbal descriptions of so-called 'pure' physical movements in contrast to lb and 2b, which describe meaning-laden actions (example after Harré and Secord 1972: 39):

la. His arm extended straight out through the car window. [Description in terms of 'pure' movement].

lb. He signaled a left turn. [Description in terms of semantically laden action].

2a. Her arm moved rapidly forward and made contact with his face. ['Pure' movement].

2b. She slapped him angrily. [Semantically laden action].

These examples, though trivial in themselves, make clear that when we describe actions in terms of movements, "we lose the real significance of the action as a part of human social life. The legacy of behaviorism is such that [we] have failed to focus on human action [through] devising experimental studies and empirical investigations. . . . [We have] concentrated on the sounds or movements which are merely the vehicles of action" (Harré and Secord 1972: 39—italics added). Semasiology sees human beings as persons who are active agents in much of their social lives. Although it is true that things happen to people such as accidents, natural disasters, 'slips of the tongue,' and the weather—things that are not part of their ongoing, self-determined patterns of action—the existence of these things does not alter the fact that people also make things happen. People monitor their performances. They possess the nature, powers and capacities to control the ways in which they present themselves to others.2

     Semasiologically, then, people are seen as capable of being efficient causes3 of their own actions, so to speak. It follows that there can be no legitimate way of reducing human actions to gross physical movement without transforming the actions into something else.

What we see in social reality is not, for example, an arm moving upwards, but a [person] trying to attract attention, a [person] greeting a friend and so on. When we see an action of a certain sort we thus connect what we see with a conceptual context utterly different from that involved in seeing movements, and this context determines the form of explanation that is appropriate. (Harré and Secord 1972: 38—italics added)

     Semasiology requires a concept of action rather than movement as an essential empirical concept. David Best summarizes two additional reasons for this requirement:

1. [A]n intentional action is not the same as a physical movement since the latter can be described in various ways according to one's point of view and one's beliefs about the person performing it. One cannot specify an action, as opposed to a purely physical movement without taking into account what the agent intended (Best 1974: 193—italics added).

2. Human movement does not symbolize [social] reality, it is [that] reality (Best 1978: 87).

On an ethnographic level, my colleagues and I explain human actions in terms of reasons why the actions are performed, taking into account the actor's intentions. In any case, we believe that no human action can rightly be reduced to simple, isolable elements of emitted behavior, shorn of language, intentions, and culturally assigned values.

     To a semasiologist, then, human actions are not amenable to independent descriptions and explanations removed from human social contexts. There is an even stronger sense in which we insist upon a tight relationship between the form of explanation an investigator uses and the context in which the actions take (took, or will take) place.

Rejecting Behaviorism and Positivism

Semasiologists rely upon the concepts, analogies, models, analytical strategies, and descriptive techniques explained here because of the impossibility of using traditional theory and methods regarding movement analysis where the properties of meaning and significance are not included. Using older concepts, analogies, etc. is unworkable because of the incompatibility of traditional explanatory frameworks (notably Behavioristic approaches4) with the realities of an Einsteinian, four-dimensional time/space continuum. Not only are older theories of human movement irreconcilable with an Einsteinian universe, they do not adequately deal with the significance (i.e., the substantive, culturally assigned meanings) of human actions.

The positivist conflation of naturalism with physics has important consequences for the possibility of naturalism in the study of human beings, because the covering-law model entails the denial of meaning as an explanatory force. Determinism entails the denial of the reality of human agency because action is reduced to behavior. In addition, experimentation entails the denial of culture (a discursive social construction of person, self, and society) as a natural form of human be-ing. (Varela 1993: 220)

     Traditional scientific approaches tend to view human beings as little more than complicated machines whose behavior can be explained by combining the effects of external stimuli and an organism's response—where an organism is subjected to a stimulus situation (as in most experimental settings) to which it responds in a predictable manner. Behaviorism in any form is always liberally mingled with logical positivism, which had "a special view of the nature of scientific objectivity" (Varela 1994: 43).

According to the positivist view, the character of explanation must assume the form of logical deduction—the 'covering-law' model. Determinism, a necessary component in a proper formulation of causation, has to meet the Humean criterion that causation is neither a necessary nor an actual force. However, the Humean imperative means that causation is reduced to correlation—the probabilistic conjunction of antecedent and consequent events. Empirical research is to be conducted according to a 'closed-world' model of experimentation under artificial conditions designed deterministically for complete manipulatory control (Varela 1993: 220).

It is from the standpoint of the behaviorist's conception of objectivity that, in later chapters, we will attempt to understand the consequences of using a behaviorist-positivist combination in movement studies. Positivism enters the equation because of the positivist's 'special view' of objectivity:

[T]o attain knowledge and to be certain that the attainment is knowledge, one is to confine oneself to the methodological conduct of mind prescribed by science for scientists. Implicit in scientific method is the discipline of self-control. The scientist is obliged to see to it that value, feeling, imagination; in short, all nonrational factors are so controlled for that their influence over rational processes is at least minimized. Ideally, they are to be eliminated. . . . The problem of objectivity, then, is the problem of the positivist view of objectivity. (Varela 1994: 43)

     The idea that objectivity (even 'scientific objectivity') can result from a bias-free or value-free mind or that human knowledge is impersonal has been proved to be misguided, notably by Polanyi (1958), but it is still the unexamined, largely unconsidered, basis for much recent thought in the field of human movement studies (Gell 1985; Prost 1995 [1975], and Turner 1996 [1984]).

     Varela makes the valuable point that Polanyi characterized all knowledge as personal. "'[K]nowing' is a decision––not simply a conclusion––and decision is a value-permeated rational judgment whose universality one is both committed to and responsible for . . . the person becomes a necessary part of any understanding of knowledge" (1994: 44).

Action Signs and Systems

The term 'action sign system' is very apt. . . . [S]ignification is an action and so must be located in time and space. The defining properties of meaningful action are precisely those not visible in a grammatical-semantic model, the units and rules of which are essentially timeless. . . . The creation of meaning is above all embedded in human relationships. People enact their selves to each other in words, movements, and other modes of action. All selves are culturally defined, as time and space themselves are culturally defined. . . . The property that language shares with all sign systems is its indexical nature; its maintenance and creation of social connections, anchored in experience and the sense of the real. (Urciuoli 1995: 189–90)

Barring congenital defects, disease, or unusual accidents, human beings talk, and they also move. They most often talk and move simultaneously. As human beings, they possess the nature, powers, and capacities to do both at once, and they can talk without moving. They can also move without talking (which is what dancers usually do).

     In any combination, both speech and movement acts emanate from human persons; that's to say from linguistically capable agents who utilize two demonstrative mediums (sound and movement) to express and communicate. However, whether conceptually, practically, or theoretically, the tendency in the past has been to consign the human body to a butcher's slab,5 a dissecting table, or the morgue. It is immobilized. Or, it is photographed (even while moving) so that we see a bodily position, not the action that is involved. Farnell stated this problem in a paper for a Visual Research Conference in Washington D.C. using examples of single photographic illustrations of a Nuer 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" (Farnell 1989: 1). "For many," she continues, "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" (Ibid.: 1–2).

     Several years later, Farnell is still right: many people simply do not see movement, and, although they see signifying acts (such as turn signals, face slapping, or greeting gestures), they rarely connect these with movement. As we shall later discover, part of the difficulty here can be attributed to the fact that we cannot measure movement in the same ways as sound is measured. Also, we tend to forget that quantitative measurements of movement (or sound) tell us very little about the meanings of either.6

     To paraphrase John Locke's definition of semiotike (and liken them to linguistic signs): action signs are signs the human mind makes use of to understand the world in which the self (persona) exists. Dancing, for example, is an activity in which thinking human persons (not mindless, physical bodies) participate. Not only dances, but rituals, ceremonies, and sign languages, are sociolinguistically-tied activities because the human bodies that perform the acts are sociolinguistically constructed. They are not mere physical bodies. The ways in which bodies are divided up, the dimensions of space/time in which they exist, the values that are assigned to right and left sides, etc. are classifications that are directly connected with the actions people perform in every society anywhere in the world.

     In a living, moving human being, the verbal and the actions are one. They cannot rightly be considered separate except for analytical purposes. An investigator must be super-conscious of making separations as well as his or her purposes for doing so. He or she must also be able to drop the separations, leaving the original data seamless and whole.

     What we see when we see people is not one or more physical bodies moving around in an empty space, with or without internal ghosts (Varela 1983). What we see in reality are human beings acting in spaces structured according to the values and presumptions of their language and culture. We see signifing acts and actions made by human signifying bodies, and, while that may seem a simple statement, the theory and methodology that supports it are complicated, as might be expected, given the intricacy of the subject of human movement itself. For example,

[C]urrent interest in embodiment encompasses such topics as the sexual body, the medical body, the body politic, the decorated body and so forth. While this 'body' is certainly a social/cultural construction, it is viewed largely as a social object and exactly how actions contribute to the process of such constructions and on-going practices continues to be absent from most analyses. (Farnell 1994: 4)

Semasiology's "signifying acts refer to the moving body producing action signs and constitutes a systemic conception of the genuine agency of embodiment" (Varela 1992: 40).

     The ways in which people classify body parts, bodily wholes, and their actions is so different from one society and language to another, and from one age group and profession to another in the same society, that such matters are usually considered ungeneralizeable, except within bounded, relatively homogeneous sociolinguistic contexts. These observations point to the old philosophical problem of translation, discussed in some detail in Chapter 2.

     Much (although not all), of the original thinking about semasiological theory in the early seventies was done with regard to dancing. Because I was a professional dancer, choreographer, and teacher of dancing for thirty years, I had intimate knowledge about how Western dancers move; how they orientated themselves to space, and how their acts and actions were (and are) related to speech. The ways in which dancers' bodies move on-stage sets them apart from non-dancers, not only because of their increased physical skills, but because of their agentive orientation to the space(s) in which they move. This knowledge formed the basis for understanding the spaces and bodily orientations of non-dancers, which is different from dancers, whose trained-in, habituated standpoint of moving (and talking) from their bodies originates in a keen awareness of being symbols in a semiotic.

     In other words,

To talk from the body is not only to experience the body as a lived-organism, but to enact the movement of the body and to thus experience it (if that is your phenomenological interest). This enactment is in the first-person standpoint of an author creating and using the semiotic of an action sign system. The implication of this position is that movement scores ['movement texts'] are ethnographically superior to word-glosses because they are recording talk from the body. The movement itself is read and described, hence literacy cannot be denied its centrality in an anthropology of human movement. (Varela 1992: 59)

     I am aware that even in a full-length book written with the aid of valuable work that has been done by others since the original theory was completed in 1975, I can at best only develop a general conceptual outline of semasiology here, because semasiological method does not constitute a unitary grid into which we force highly variant cultural data.

     I try to cope with the complexity by progressively elaborating upon basic themes, some of which have already been introduced. Sometimes, I give previews of what lies ahead at the beginning of a chapter by listing a series of questions that are answered, but experience warns that previewing of any kind is not always a useful device. Too often, it interrupts powerful lines of thought. When and if it does, I drop previewing and get on with the job.

     I do not provide a complete bibliography with regard to human movement because I don't refer to every work that has some relation to the themes I discuss. Occasionally, authors are cited (e.g., Skinner, Prost, Birdwhistell, Gell) because their work exemplifies sophisticated conceptions of human movement that are fundamentally incompatible with semasiological theory.

     Readers will not go far before they discover that a few authors are cited again and again (e.g., Ardener, Best, Farnell, Harré, Urciuoli, and Varela), either because their work had strong influences on semasiology's development, or because their research over the past two decades is based upon (or compatible with) semasiological principles. Their studies represent different kinds of writing and disciplinary orientations, but without exception, their work exemplifies profound understanding of what human actions consist.


1 The word was chosen because it defines signification as the study of meaning, unlike the word 'semiotic,' which is described as the science of signs.

2 They have always possessed these characteristics. Perhaps that is the 'link' between early humankind and ourselves.

3 An 'efficient cause' is a cause by which some change is brought about—that which initiates activity. It is one of Aristotle's four causes: (i) material, (ii) formal, (iii) efficient, and (iv) final.

4 "Perhaps the most popular form of the point of view we repudiate, even today, [judging by its number of adherents], is the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner (1953). Though he avoids the official tenets of logical positivism Skinner embraces more tightly than anyone . . . the mechanistic model of human action, and the Humean conception of cause. His subscription to a mechanistic conception and to Humean notions of cause restricted to external stimuli are revealed in the ubiquity of the concept of controlling variable: Skinnerians repeatedly emphasize his view that behavior, including the verbal behavior of a scientist, is under the control of variables which are primarily environmental" (Harré and Secord 1972: 34–35).

5 See Harré 1986c.

6 This statement might be misconstrued: semasiology is not against semantically null (kinological) research, nor do we say that statistical knowledge about the reoccurrence of 'kines' (equivalent to 'phones' in linguistics) is irrelevant to the study of body languages. We are, however, against the wholesale acceptance of an entire point of view including these notions.



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