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 2: Signifying Bodies

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


Chapter 2: Signifying Bodies

Of Bishop Berkeley's theory of the non-existence of matter, Boswell observed that though they were satisfied it was not true, they were unable to refute it. Johnson struck his foot against a large stone, till he re-bounded from it, saying, "I refute it thus."
                            James Boswell (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson

Preview Questions

1. Of what does a traditionally acceptable concept of the body consist?

2. Is the phrase 'the signifying body' merely a new word gloss on a conceptual entity everyone already knows about?

3. Why was the signifying body defined?

4. What practical connection is there between the theory of the signifying body and fieldwork or observation?

5. If it is true that there is great semantic diversity among concepts of the body, how does semasiology deal with the problem of translation?

6. What are the 'general facts about human beings' postulated by semasiology?

It may be helpful to remember that semasiology emerged in an already occupied area of academic study. Birdwhistell's kinesics (1970), Hall's proxemics (1966), the Hungarian school of motif-morphology (Kürti 1980), Kendon's gestural approach (1983), an approach based on Pikean linguistics called the emic/etic approach (Kaeppler 1972), and Elam's theatre semiotics (1980) preceded semasiology.1 It is, however, unlike any of them because of its definition of the body-instrument; that is, "The finite anatomical structure of the body makes possible the precise identification of all theoretically possible movements of the body" (Varela 1983: 244). Precise definition of the degrees of freedom of the jointing parts of the signifying body opened the door for semasiologists to discuss the facilitating conditions of agency:

Both the personal space of the enactor and the performance spaces in which the personal space is embedded are structured by three interacting dualisms of U/D (up/down), F/B (front/back), R/L (right/left) and one dimension of time. These particular enactment spaces involve conditions of orientation and displacement and three fixed and three moving axes upon which they are based. This complex condition of agency allows for the contextual form space of, for example, a dance, or the liturgical space of a ritual, or the communicative space of a signed conversation, etc. (Varela [1983: 244])

     Although comparative study of the above-mentioned approaches is of considerable interest to serious students, when they are all boiled down, one of the major differences in them is revealed by an examination of differing views of the human body. At this level, there is very little deviation among the conceptions of the body upon which older theories of human movement are based. Learned by most English-speakers in grade school and high school, the traditional (western, medical) view of the human body could be called 'archetypal.' We are concerned to discover what this traditional view of the body entails because it usually provides the spoken (or unspoken) context that determines the form of description used to explain whatever bodily movements are under discussion.

     For example, after he describes two soldiers standing astride their duffel bags beside a highway thumbing a ride, Birdwhistell provides a kind of 'macro-kinesic explanation' of their act. We are to understand that two members of the species, Homo Sapiens, stand with an intra-femoral index of approximately 45°, right humeral appendages raised to an 80° angle to their torsos, then, in an antero-posterior sweep, using a double pivot at the scapular-clavicular joint, accomplish a communicative signal.

     From "two men thumbing a ride" (a meaningful social act), we encounter "two members of the species Homo Sapiens." Gone are "legs"—they become an "intra-femoral index." "Arms" disappear: they become "right humeral appendages." In other words, the act of thumbing a ride is described 'macro-kinesically' using a highly technical, Latin-based taxonomy of the body adopted by surgeons, physiotherapists, and others who repair or heal purely physical functions (see Birdwhistell 1970: 176–77).

     What is the value of a medically-based taxonomy for the purpose of describing two human beings performing a signifying act? Not unexpectedly, the taxonomic shift provides the reason for claims that the description is 'scientific.' Unfortunately, the entire edifice of Birdwhistell's kinesics falls down because of conceptual devices like this. In a presumed desire to be scientific and objective, the author reduces the act of thumbing a ride to a gross physical movement described in a physiological context. Explanatory control for everything in kinesics is ultimately based upon this kind of reduction.

The Archetypal Medical View of the Human Body

In Western medicine, the body is traditionally considered separate from the mind and it is seen as a kind of complicated machine: a network of purely physical processes that has functions, true, but they are basically mindless functions. The behavior of this body is believed to be best understood by understanding the nature of its individual physical parts. Classical physics and mechanics tended to see the body in the same way: the notion of a 'real' body without a mind was a product of classical deterministic physics, which in turn partakes of Cartesian mind-body dualisms. Not only that, among many, the concept of the body as a machine is (sadly) the only concept that is considered to be scientific.

     The difficulty is this: if an investigator holds to this kind of understanding of what a human body is, or uses a classical, mechanistic conception of the body as the ultimate philosophical and theoretical bedrock of his or her thinking, the resulting descriptions (interpretations, analyses, and explanations) of any human movement whatsoever will inevitably be distorted. The significance of the performed actions as part of human social life is lost. Because it is impossible to erect a theory of human actions that emphasizes meaning from a foundation of the reductionist, medical concept of the human body, it was necessary to re-define the body in terms that are compatible with the study of meaning because

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. Time and space [and, we may add, 'persons'] are never simply there; they are continually cut to fit the agenda of the moment. (Urciuoli 1995: 189)

Since semasiology is the study of signification in the sense of meaning, it is not based upon a medical concept of the body or any of the reductionist, mechanistic notions that the concept entails. Semasiology is based upon an anthropomorphic model of human beings2––that is, on the idea that people can be studied scientifically as if they were human beings, not organisms or machines. People in the real world possess the natures, powers, and capacities to construct and to use meaningful systems of actions for the purposes of expression. Both an anthropomorphic model of humanity and the idea that the nature of human beings can be studied scientifically are important because they indicate reformed ideas about what human 'be-ing' amounts to, and what science is (See Harré 1972; Madden and Harré 1971; Madden 1969 and 1973, and Harré and Madden 1973).

The Signifying Body

The moving, signifying body of semasiology is seen to exist as if it were at rest in a kind of 'field' (somewhat similar to an electro-magnetic field) consisting of a timeless state of potential energy. As such, it is conceived as a super-position of possibility. The possibilities for movement are defined in a mathematical framework of all theoretically possible moves the signifying body could make,3 with equal probabilities of realization, until an actual act (a move) takes place. At that moment a choice (not necessarily conscious) has been made by some person in a field of complementarities (or 'processes') which manifests itself as an empirically visible act.

     Although the body has equal probabilities of realizing actions out of a theoretical field of possibilities, not all possible actions are realized in any single action sign, action sign system, or group of systems. Deciding factors here are differing hierarchical systems of values that particular cultures place on gestures, spatial dimensions, and such.

     From this description, it should be clear that the signifying body of semasiology is not a new word gloss for traditional bodily concepts. It is not a semantic overlay covering familiar concepts of the body. Add to that the notion that the signifying body is a moving body and it becomes clear that any description, analysis, interpretation, or explanation that semasiologists produce must emphasize (1) the visible action signs, (2) the invisible concepts related to them, and (3) the spatial constructs and forms within which the particular system under investigation exists.

The Visibility and Invisibility of Action Signs

Not everything about performed actions is visible to an investigator. Often, that which is most important to the meanings of action signs cannot be seen. A Dutch anthropologist shares a puzzling situation encountered in the field:

If one were to travel through various parts of West New Guinea, one might observe the following gestures by Papuans who notice you. They might put a hand on their navel, their breasts, or their armpit; they might also beckon you. If you are lured into approaching the beckoner, he will be quite surprised for his hand simply said "hello," and so did the navel, the breasts, and the armpit and so on. All of them are visible, observable signs of an invisible message which has to be inferred. (Pouwer 1973: 4)

     Each individual Papuan has a number of substantive ipu, which is the essence (spirit or principle) of life, existing in different patterns in the jointing parts of his or her body. Any combination of bodily parts might be touched preceding the 'beckoning' sign, therefore all of the gestures look different, except for the gesture at the end of each sequence.

     Pouwer had no idea what the Mimika responses to his gesture of 'waving' to them meant, saying that "it is often difficult to infer meanings from observations." He further remarks:

Every conscientious translator is aware of his frustrations when he tries to convey meanings for which the vehicles are sometimes completely missing. . . . For example, in what way can one formulate an English equivalent for the concept of the Mimika . . . that the essence of life called IPU is located in each of the jointing parts of the body separately, such as the knuckles, shoulder-blades and kneecaps. To these Papuans each individual person has a number of substantive ipu. English equivalents such as spirit or principle of life or for that matter manna hardly convey the meaning of ipu. (Pouwer 1973: 3)

Pouwer came to realize that these uniquely combined gestures formed standard Mimika greetings. The element ipu + 'hello' constitutes the invisible concept that governs Papuan greeting gestures.

Figure 2
Figure 1. A Mimika Greeting Gesture (after Pouwer 1973).

Taxonomies of the Body

By this time, many readers may have asked this question: "If I accept semasiology's position that traditional views and/or some postmodern views of the body do not form an adequate base from which to investigate meaningful social action, then how might this affect my research?" One out of many possible answers to that question is that field research priorities may change. That is, instead of beginning field investigations with, say, genealogies or political structures, it may prove useful for the researcher to find out how his or her own body is named (hence conceived of) in the culture in which he or she is working.

     It is well known among anthropologists that there are differing social taxonomies of the body throughout the world. Not every society has a concept of the body as complex as that of the Mimika of course, but there are many invisible bodily concepts that go beyond an unrefined function of naming. It makes sense, however, to start with how the body is named, which has the additional advantage of helping investigators to learn the language. One has to find a 'port of entry,' so to speak, that facilitates future interests in movement and gesture.

     Usually, the society's taxonomy goes much further than simple naming processes, and this, too, has advantages, because it provides a solid basis for understanding deeper levels of specific cultural realities. This is well exemplified in the Dogon series relating parts of a granary to parts of a woman, the parts of the house compound with parts of the body, and the village explained in terms of an extended anatomical metaphor (Griaule 1965: 94–7):

The Dogon granary is interpreted as being like a woman, lying on her back (representing the sun) with her arms and legs raised and supporting the roof (representing the sky). The two legs were on the north side, and the door at the sixth step marked the sexual parts. . . . The granary and all it contained was therefore a picture of the world-system of the new order, and the way in which this system worked was represented by the functioning of the internal organs. (Griaule 1965: 37)

Here we see the connection between anatomical classification, the metaphorical use of the relations of the body-parts to each other, symbolically connected with grain, the most important Dogon food and principle of life-breath.

With regard to the house form, Griaule equates the vestibule with the male and the large central room with the female; the outside door represents the male sexual organ. The store rooms on either side are equatable with her arms and the communicating door. (op. cit. 96)

A similar theme is further explored in the third example from Griaule.

[A] house of this sort is only one feature of the village. "The village," said Ogotemmeli, "should extend from north to south like the body of a man lying on his back. . . . The head is the council house, built on the chief square, which is the symbol of the primal field [op.cit. 96]. . . . To the east and west are houses for menstruating women; they are round like wombs and represent the hands of the village. The large family houses are its chest and belly; the communal altars at the south of the village are its feet. . . . The stones on which the fruit of the Lannea acida is crushed, placed in the centre of the village, represents its female sexual parts. Beside them should be set the foundation altar, which is its male sex organ; but out of respect for the women this altar is erected outside the walls. (cited in Ellen 1977: 358–59)

Roy Ellen's work is invaluable for researchers who are interested in the relationship between speech and gesture. Then, too, cultural variation in the classification of body-parts has been documented, e.g., Marsh and Laughlin (1956); Franklin (1963), and Werner and Begishe (1970). Valuable though such work is, by itself, knowledge of taxonomic differences is not enough. We need to know much more about how classifications of body-parts and differences in bodily concepts influence configurations of gesture. For initial understanding, we turn to the work of Edwin Ardener (1982).

'Shaking Hands'

Let us consider the shaking of hands in England and among the Ibo of south-eastern Nigeria. In both languages there are apparently inter-translatable terms for the gesture (Ibo ji aka). Although aka is usually translated 'hand' the boundaries of the parts concerned are, however, quite different. The English 'hand' is bounded at the wrist. The Ibo aka is bounded just below the shoulder. The fingers and thumb are called mkpisi aka, in which mkpisi is "any thin somewhat elongated object" (cf. 'a stick' mkpisi osisi–osisi 'tree', 'a match' mkpisi okhu–okhu 'fire'). The more open-gestured nature of the Ibo handshake compared with the English handshake is linked in part to this difference of classification. For the English-speaker the extreme, 'formal' possibility of presenting an only slightly mobile hand at the end of a relatively stiff arm becomes a choice reinforced by language. For the Ibo-speaker, even if that is a possible gesture it has no backing from language. On the contrary, for him, gripping the forearm and other variants of the gesture are still covered by the concept of shaking the aka, and are, as it were allomorphs of the common gestural morpheme. For the English-speaker such arm-grips are gesturally (that is, not merely linguistically) separate from shaking hands—they are gestures of a different 'meaning.' We do not resort to any linguistic determinism if we argue that the gestural classification rests to a certain degree on the labelling of bodily parts. The possibility of a different classification of greetings exists for the English speaker because of the particular placing of a conceptual boundary, which does not exist in Ibo. (Ardener 1982: 4—italics added)

Later, Ardener asserts: "The aka is not a 'mere' taxonomic label" (1982: 6), adding,

. . . aka is not a 'mere' word in some nineteenth century lexicographical sense. It is attached to the upper limb, but it is a mnemonic for conceptualizations which are not conventionally linguistic or psychological, and which are actualized almost unconsciously as far as the individual is concerned. This is undoubtedly part of the distinction known by the terms 'signifier' and 'signified' (Saussure 1916). Nevertheless, such a 'signified' is too complex for the traditional 'linguistic sign' to encompass. (1982: 7)

     Indeed, it was the complexity of such 'signifieds' out of which a semasiological approach to the study of human movement with its central concept of 'action sign(s)' emerged.

Comparisons of 'Shaking Hands'

As the written examples in Figure 2. (below) illustrate,

1. the Ibo grasps the 'lower arm' rather than the 'hand'—as defined by an English-speaker.

2. In the Assiniboine-Sioux example, we see that the emphasis on 'hand' involves mainly the fingers, and no shaking is involved.

3. Only the Euro-American example illustrates a palm-to-palm clasping of hands with subsequent shaking up and down. Farnell's work provides further illustration.

Handshaking is not a universally used (or understood) gesture of greeting.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Three distinct action signs glossed as "a handshake" (From B. Farnell in Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance, Scarecrow Press 1995: 288).

Native American 'Handshaking'

Prior to the early 1800s, the offering of a hand to shake was equally strange as a form of greeting on the Plains, as illustrated by the following report about the introduction of Nakesinia (Red Calf), a Crow chief, to French fur trader La Rocque:

When we offered to shake hands with this great man, he did not understand the intention, and stood motionless until he was informed that shaking hands was the sign of friendship among white men: then he stretched forth both his hands to receive ours. (McKensie 1804–1806, quoted in Wood and Thiessen 1985: 245).

The shaking of hands has long since been adopted as a form of greeting between both strangers and acquaintances. Some young people and AIM (American Indian Movement) members have also adopted the kinds of complex variations also seen among African-American youths and college fraternity members that mark a person as an insider.

     There is, however, a distinct quality of handshake among Assiniboine and Sioux women that is a relaxed gentle touch of the fingers only, not the whole hand. This serves to transmit important information about ethnic identity for the participants. The gentle touch, not a shake, confirms that the person engaged in the act is Indian (if this is not obvious from appearance) and if not, then at least it is someone who is familiar with Indian ways. For Euro-Americans, this lack of pressure in the hand and contact of mostly fingers, rather than whole palm, seems rather cool and distant. They expect this action to contain an expression of emotion: for them the firmer the grip and the wider the smile, the greater the investment of 'friendliness,' a quality deemed essential to successful social interaction. (Farnell 1995: 286–87)

Handshaking was adopted by Native Americans fairly recently. Not unexpectedly, the act has many subtle variations. Figure 2 emphasizes Farnell's declaration that word glosses such as the linguistic sign 'handshake' do not provide accurate guidelines into the intricacies of the action signs involved.

     Indeed, "It becomes clear how, in these kinds of cross-cultural comparisons of action signs, word glosses such as 'handshake' often cover up distinct action signs and their meanings in unfortunate ways" (Farnell 1995: 287). Continuing, she tells us that

[h]andshakes and the like belong to an area of human social life that is commonly taken to be the most observable, the kind of behavior that can be relatively objectively described. As Ardener . . . reminds us, however, action and thought even in this apparently simple zone are inextricably linked and mediated by language. In both Nakota and English, as with Ibo and English, there are apparently intertranslatable terms for the gesture of shaking hands, but they cannot be said to refer to the same action sign across cultures [see Figure 2]. For the Native American woman offering relaxed fingers, a hearty grip is a gesture with a different meaning, a gesture that is not only a greeting but also an indicator of ethnic identity and ethnic awareness. To paraphrase Ardener, the instance may appear to be socially trivial, but the relationships between Native Americans and non-Indians have no more characteristic a framework than this (1995: 289—italics added).


Taxonomies of the body and their attending concepts are vital to translations of gestures. Malcolm Chapman's work provides essential insights:

It will be clear that the possibility for misjudgement and misinterpretation of the kind that I have described is very great in 'non-verbal' matters. Character, emotional states, and changes of mood, are judged and expressed according to a great diversity of non-verbal 'semantic' phenomena, including bodily posture, gesture, stress or rapidity of pitch in speech, frequency or rapidity of movement of the body, avoidance or seeking of bodily contact, and so on. All these things are semantically loaded, rule governed, and category based, and vary greatly from culture to culture. There is not, however, any serious popular conception that such things require 'translation' from one culture to another. Most people, when faced with an unintelligible foreign language, will recognize the need for 'translation' [but] non-verbal 'language' gestures, and generally semantic use of the body, of the person, or of groups of people, are not usually granted the same status as language in this respect. Translation will not be thought necessary. (Chapman 1982: 133–34—italics added)

Yet, as we have seen with regard to bodily concepts and the cases of 'greeting gestures,' human acts frequently require translation. Indeed, if no translation occurs, understanding remains elusive. And, there are other profound issues at stake.

     First, if concepts and practices are entirely internal to a society, how is it possible to translate at all? Can anyone really understand cultures that are different from their own? For many, this is still an insurmountable problem, even though anthropologists know through many years of experience that it is possible to understand peoples whose languages, beliefs, and practices are foreign to their own. However, it is just here that I think one of the major problems of human movement studies emerges in bold relief. Even professional anthropologists frequently tend to assume movement is 'transparent.'

     Second, most Europeans and Americans have been taught to believe there are 'universal' aspects of humanity that, at some fundamental level, constitute a common, primitive ground of reactions in a social context of all human beings. These 'common primitive reactions' are seen to include common primitive gestures. Among so-called 'natural' or 'instinctive' human responses such as hunger, pain, and sexual urges, we find 'common primitive gestures,' although I have so far not found descriptions of what these are (or were). Until enlightenment is provided, I will refrain from further comment, except to say that one recognizes the need for something to which appeal can be made out of which languages and social practices can emerge. If so, we desperately need to know what that 'something' is.4

General Facts about Human Beings

Perhaps people think human actions do not require translation because, in general, human actions are not classified with language. Instead, human movement is invoked when attempts are made to find the 'roots' of language and human responses. Movements are part of the 'bottom line' Wittgenstein referred to as "certain general facts about human beings."

     Semasiologists do not quarrel about the existence of "general facts about human beings" but we do question what the facts are, particularly with reference to human action. We are skeptical about facts being labeled 'instinctive' and 'natural,' because 'instinct' in human beings is such a confused idea: there is no clear way to distinguish between experience and movement that is 'instinctive' or 'natural' and that which is learned. Then, too, we "see no reason to accept [physical bases] for experience as natural because they are physical" (Farnell 1996: 320—italics added ).5 Moreover, we wonder why explanatory control of human movement is so often yielded to evolutionary biology? Or, do the words 'natural,' 'instinct,' and 'instinctive' disguise reductionist, genetic explanations of human movement that so frequently characterize sociobiology?

     Human beings possess the attribute of flexibility in unparalleled abundance in their alleged 'behavioral' responses. All of semasiology's actual or potential data: dances, sign languages, and other action sign systems, can be brought forward as evidence to support the claim that just here, we can clearly see the fact that human beings are precisely free from the rigid dictates of genetic programming. Unlike genetic programming in other sensate creatures that most often specifies single responses, human beings are not rigidly programmed. They are an unspecialized group of creatures. I do not think there is an ethologist, biologist, or physical anthropologist who would disagree. Nor do I think they would disagree that the words 'performance' and 'performativity' are the reverse of 'instinctive.' Even if a semasiologist spoke of 'instinctive' human actions, he or she would refer to signifying acts that partake of the conceptual strata in human spoken and body languages. It cannot be overemphasized that semasiological theory "has as its fundamental premise the primacy of movement, and as its central orientation, the agentic perspective of enactment" (Varela 1993: 239).

     Semasiologists do not privilege either medium of human expression (sound or movement) over the other. What we find perplexing is the apparent necessity to postulate 'common primitive reactions'—including movement and gesture—as a foundation for understanding the origins of language, as the reason that human languages possess meaning, and as a 'just so story' about how it all began.6

Intransitive Structures: Conditions for New Ways of Seeing

With regard to human movement anywhere on earth, there are invariant features of the signifying body and its geographical environment that provide strong lines of continuity upon which culture-specific semanticities depend,7 thus we may say that there are structural invariants within which all human movement anywhere in the world takes place.8

Any adequate philosophy of science must find a way of grappling with this central paradox of science: that men in their social activity produce knowledge which is a social product much like any other, which is no more independent of its production and the men who produce it than motor-cars, armchairs or books, which has its own craftsmen, technicians, publicists, standards and skills and which is no less subject to change than any other commodity. This is one side of 'knowledge.' The other is that knowledge is 'of things which are not produced by men at all: the specific gravity of mercury, the process of electrolysis, the mechanism of light propagation. None of these 'objects of knowledge' depends upon human activity. . . . Let us call these, in an unavoidable technical neologism, the intransitive objects of knowledge. (Bhaskar 1975: 22)

Intransitive structures of the human signifying body and the space in which it moves define the bodily and spatial conditions that obtain for human beings anytime, anywhere on this planet. The spatial dimensions of up/down, right/left, and front/back (the structure of interacting dualities) and the degrees of freedom of the jointing parts of the body persist. They have persisted for centuries—even millenia. We cannot imagine human life on earth without them. The spatial dimensions and the movement capabilities of human beings were present for Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, and Neolithic human beings just as they are present now.

     If human beings possess the natures, powers, and capacities to speak and to make significant moves––to act as agents––then there is no reason to believe that 'general facts about human beings' must be those that reduce human sociocultural—signifying—bodies to biological organisms.

[T]he peculiar contribution of semasiology resides in its theoretical exploitation of the defeat of reductionism by virtue of the alternative idea of groundedness. This involves converting the physical constraints of a deterministic organism into the physical resources of a cultural body. [The signifying body] is . . . conceived as a dynamic medium for the exercise of those resources. It is also conceived as providing the opportunity for discovering and exploiting the body's richness of agentic possibility. . . . Williams insists that action sign systems are languages equal in complexity and communicational power to ordinary spoken language systems, although she does not claim that body languages are therefore the same as spoken languages. . . . This permits semasiologists to regard both speech-acts and action signs as signifying acts. Embracing Mead's terminology we can say that speech-acts are vocal gestures and action signs are non-vocal or manual [or whole bodily] gestures. Williams expresses this notion as follows, based on a creative interpretation of Hampshire's thesis of the primacy of movement: it is an axiom of semasiological theory that spatial points of reference are points of application for linguistic predicates. (Varela 1993: 240)

A word, a spatial point of reference, and a gesture (for example, a gesture indicating 'here' or 'there') are intimately tied—so much so that semasiology does not separate them, nor does it separate any movement from a human being's capacity to speak:

This is where indexicality and, more specifically, deixis enters the picture. Meaning emerges in significant action in ways that are systematically linked to the performer's or signer's or speaker's relation to an audience or addressee; in short, it requires consideration of an axis linking I or we to you in opposition to her, him, it or them. Such meaning cannot be purely indexical (that is, cannot simply indicate some existential connection), it has to be classified in some larger cultural scheme of meaning. (Urciuoli 1996: 365)

'Indexical signs' in semasiology are signs whose meaning is dependent upon (and relative to) the characteristics of the user and the contextual relationships in which these characteristics and signs are found. Ordinary gestures such as pointing, nodding of the head toward something, raising of the eyebrows to indicate a referent, and such are regarded as indexical signs, but semasiology uses the notion of indexicality as a defining feature of all human movement because no human movement takes place outside of contextual relationships or larger cultural schemes of meaning.

     'Deixis' (from which 'deictic' is derived) is a Greek word that means 'pointing' or 'indicating.' It is also a technical term in linguistics

used to handle those features of [spoken] language that are relative to the place and time of the spoken utterance. They include personal pronouns and adverbials of time and space such as 'here' and 'there' and 'now' and 'then' as well as demonstratives and tense. (Farnell 1995c: 108)

The deictic features of human movement are those of location, direction, orientation, and reference. Without these we would not know where we are, where we are going, where we belong. We would not know to whom or to what we are spatially related. In other words, real, moving human bodies exist in semantically loaded spatiolinguistic fields––not in impoverished behavioristic, or some postmodernist, vacuums.


Short answers to the Preview questions

1. Of what does a traditionally acceptable concept of the body consist? The western 'medical body,' also characteristic of classical deterministic physics.

2. Is the phrase, 'the signifying body' merely a new word gloss on a conceptual entity everyone already knows about? No, it is not. The signifying body has been redefined and specified so that researchers can include human beings' potential for the characteristics of moving and agency.

3. Why was the signifying body defined? Because it is impossible to erect a theory of actions that includes meaning, person, and agency from traditional views of the body and human movement, which excludes these concepts.

4. What practical connection is there between the theory of the signifying body and fieldwork or observation? Researchers may want to consider giving taxonomies of the body priority when they begin their investigations into a society.

5. If there is great semantic diversity among concepts of the body, how does semasiology deal with the problem of 'translation'? By acknowledging the equality of the two fundamental mediums of human expression and communication: sound and movement, and by recognizing that action signs (no less than linguistic signs) require translation.

6. What are the 'general facts about human beings' postulated by semasiology? The INTRANSITIVE STRUCTURES of the signifying body and the spaces in which it moves. Some of these are: 1. The spatial dimensions of up/down, right/left, front/back, and inside/outside, and at least one dimension of time9; 2. The degrees of freedom of the jointing parts of the human body, and 3. the law of hierarachical motility.


1 Further discussion of these theories is available in Williams (1991: 208–43).

2 There were other "open doors to the facilitation of agency"; for example, see Harré 1999 [1971].

3 The concept "all theoretically possible human movement" is the key to the definition of the signifying body.

4 Many introductory physical anthropology texts now point out that the only 'common' gestures are those observable at and shortly following birth: for example, certain reflexes, such as following with the eyes and sucking.

5 [Farnell's Note]: "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 [Lakoff and Johnson 1980] might have been more suspicious of their 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!"

6 See Williams (2000a) for essays by Glasser, Baynton, Buckland, and Farnell for the reasons why semasiologists have problems with traditional, largely Victorian, searches for origins.

7 These were fully defined and specified in Williams (1972: 174–95); in Williams (1975: 61 and 84–119), and again in a two-part published essay (Williams 1976a and 1976b).

8 One can imagine worlds where there are no invariant parameters; worlds where, for instance, one would never know which direction dropped objects would fall or where the degrees of freedom of the jointing parts of human bodies changed randomly, but these conditions do not obtain at present on this planet. Astronauts in outer space have a changed relationship to the coordinate 'up/down,' of course, but these are special conditions not included in general semasiological theory.

     [Editors Note: At this point in the argument, Williams refers interested readers to an Appendix for a brief survey of the mathematics of these specifications. If not interested, she suggests they may skip the technicalities and proceed. The Appendix is not included in this issue of JASHM but will be made available in later issues.]

9 [Varela's Notes]: "Although not a spatial dimension in a physicist's sense, inside/ outside [I/0] is usually included in Williams's definitions of the body-instrument space because of its importance in various ethnographic formations of meanings 'on the ground'"; and, "Again, in a strict physical sense, only one dimension of time is generally recognized, however, Williams usually adds the provocative phrase 'at least' to the words 'one dimension of time' because many systems of time-reckoning studied in social anthropology don't conform to the limitations of the physicist's one dimension of passing time" (Varela 1993: 245—endnotes 4 and 5).


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