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: Preface

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



Drid Williams

When the doctoral thesis from which this book is taken was completed in 1975, there appeared to be no philosophical problems with the concept of agency in the field of human movement studies, which at the time was divided into relatively autonomous areas: behavioral and/or kinesiologically-based studies in contrast to numerous alternative treatments including aesthetic and phenomenological approaches, functionalist anthropological approaches and some others.1 None of these dealt specifically with human agency, mainly because in general, bodily movement was seen as 'separate.' With the notable exception of Kaeppler (1972), earlier approaches removed "the medium of bodily movement itself from serious consideration as a component of social action" (Farnell 1994: 929). In the early 1970s, therefore, semasiology was a radical approach to human movement studies where agency was (and still is) seen as a causal power. In semasiology, then and now, agency means 'action personified.'

agent. A person . . . who is the subject when there is action. A long history attaches to thinking of the property of being an agent as (i) possessing a capacity to choose between options and (ii) being able to do what one chooses. Agency is then treated as a causal power. Some such treatment is assumed when 'agent-causation' is given a prominent role to play in the elucidation of action. (Hornsby 1980—italics added)

Over the past twenty years, problems with the concept of agency have arisen with the advent of a new area of inquiry, cultural studies, although there is some difficulty in defining it.2 The different notion of agency originated in Britain (see Storey 1997; Grossberg and Nelson 1988; Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler 1991, and Sparks 1997), finding its way across the Atlantic in one of its lesser forms as performance studies in the United States.3

     Briefly, in cultural studies, agency is not assigned to the human beings under investigation. Agency seems either to be assigned to the socio-economic systems in which human beings live and/or to its researchers. In the cultural studies context, the general human capacity to act as an agent often becomes the interpretation of an investigator who conceives of him or herself as a spokesperson for whatever group is studied. In the cultural studies definition, agency seems, rather oddly, to be a feature of human life that is external to and independent of human beings!

     This concept of agency is strongly influenced by recent Marxist thought,4 in that it sees the human subject as "a historical product, an ensemble of social relationships, not something essential and permanent" (Grossberg and Nelson 1988: 7). While semasiology does not deny the influences of history or language in human development, neither does it define human beings as social "products" (Williams 1991: 300), nor is it grounded in Marxism.

     In semasiology, human acts themselves are described as 'action signs,' performed by persons who possess the nature, powers, and capacities to act, thus bodily movements (as actions) are conceived to be integral parts of human social action (see Urciuoli 1995). In cultural studies, investigators are, on the whole, conceived to be agents for the people (or group) under investigation. Investigators thus fulfill the function of an agent: one who speaks or acts for someone else.

The Origin of Semasiology's Conception of Agency

The semasiological conception of agency first arose out of reflections on a Cartesian paradigm of human action; a paradigm strongly connected to a Newtonian model of mechanics, expressed in a description of billiard balls:

Descartes Paradigm. A stationary ball resting on a smooth table is struck by a moving ball. It begins to move and continues moving. The ball which struck the stationary ball continues on but moves less quickly. We are strongly tempted to think of this happening as a transaction in which the totality of the effect is due to the originally moving ball, and to suppose that the stationary ball contributes nothing to the final situation. The second ball which originally was stationary has no intrinsic power of motion, though it can move. Looking deeper and farther into this paradigm, we can ask about the origin of motion of the first ball: that which was originally moving. Did it possess its motion intrinsically or did it move of itself? . . . This paradigm . . . is not a straight metaphysician's crib from the science of mechanics. In that science, the final state of a system of bodies is a product of two factors, an extrinsic factor which is the various states of motion of the balls before they collide, and an intrinsic factor, which is the inertia or mass of the balls. Inertia is . . . a negative power, the power to resist indefinite increments of motion. . . . The application of the Cartesian paradigm requires us to suppose that in all action the effect is completely produced by the impressed or stimulating cause. (Harré 1970: 266–67—italics added)

The difficulty with billiard balls as a paradigm of action for any account of the movement of human beings consists in the fact that billiard balls possess neither the power nor the capacity for agency––they can neither initiate nor arrest their own movements. In strong contrast, human beings can initiate their own actions in space/time. Humans also have the power to arrest their movements/actions at will. They manipulate their movement/action in extraordinary ways in the activities of dancing, talking in sign languages, liturgies, ceremonies, sports, and the martial arts.

     The contrast between inert billiard balls and active, dynamic human beings renders the use of a Newtonian mechanical model of movement inappropriate to describe the actions of human beings. Furthermore, the Newtonian models of 'mechanisms,' 'organisms,' and such is tied to a stimulus-response theory of behavior (whether of billiard balls or human beings), and it is tied to the notion of causality. The cause of a billiard ball moving has to come from outside the ball whether as the initial cause of its movement or any subsequent movement it may make. In turn, the cause of the second ball moving is the movement of the first ball, and so on, for none of the balls have the power to move on their own. Human beings do.

     Human beings have the power to move (thus to act) on their own. They have the capacity for agency with regard to their own movements, and, they have the power to move, that is, they can cause their own movements and actions, therefore, the semasiological conception of agency is fundamentally tied to the idea of 'causal powers'—an assertion that takes us historically into the eighteenth century, to David Hume (b. 1711–d. 1776), who aimed to place logic, morals, criticism, and politics on a new foundation that he called "the science of man." Hume's theory includes a theory of human nature that semasiology rejects, along with Newtonian mechanics, as a viable explanation of human action signs. Instead, semasiologists are advocates of Harré and Madden's theory of causal powers:

There can be no doubt that the Humean conception of Causality and its linear descendant, the Regularity theory, must be wrong. To accept either of these doctrines is to be forced in the long run to admit the irrationality of science and to acknowledge the impossibility of accounting for the common-sense view of the world. Why has the Humean point of view continued over many centuries to attract adherents among intelligent men? The answer must surely lie in there being certain assumptions in the Humean way of thinking whose full range of consequences have never been fully examined. Just as the tiniest error in navigation may lead to a landfall even on the wrong continent, so the acceptance of apparently innocuous principles can lead to doctrines which, if accepted, would render intellectual life as we practice it, and the world as we conceive it, impossible. But for some of those for whom the Regularity Theory and its associated doctrines in philosophical logic and the philosophy of science make up an attractive point of view, these dire consequences hold no terrors. For them, the construction of a conceptual system capable of accommodating the actual intellectual practices of science, and in which the known character of the world can be satisfactorily and systematically described, are not reasonable ambitions. To such a one this book can offer little. But if an adherent of the Regularity Theory and its siblings is troubled by the continual revelation of disparities between what that theory claims ought to be the case in science and nature, and what actually obtains, then we are confident that in joining us he has nothing to lose but his dogmatic scales. (Harré and Madden 1975: 1)

Harré and Madden's theory of causal powers lies at the heart of the question, "What causes danced (signed, ceremonial, or gymnastic) movements in the first instance?" If Harré and Madden (and later, Hornsby) are right––that human beings are creatures who have the nature, powers, and capacities to move, thus to act intentionally, then causal powers theory had (and has) to be foundational for semasiology.

     There are those who ask, "Is there a short definition of causal powers? Does one have to read Harré and Madden's book to find out what semasiology is about?" If the reader intends to use semasiological theory with regard to the analysis and explanation of any human movement system in the real world, then the answer is yes. If the reader does not intend to use semasiological theory as a framework for describing and explaining a structured system of human movement, but wants to acquire greater understanding of what semasiology is, then the following may be adequate.

     Two statements that suffice for the purpose of answering briefly the question are: 1. "We conceive our world to be an interacting system of powerful particulars [among them, human beings]. The patterns of events and ensembles of properties which they produce in their interaction upon one another give rise to the multitudinous phenomena of the world we experience. Our system proves, we believe, a thorough-going alternative to the world view and conceptual system that has dogged philosophy and interfered with science since the end of the eighteenth century" (Harré and Madden 1975: 7), and 2. 'Power' is a notion particularly associated with agency, with the initiation of trains of events, with activity (Ibid.: 88).

     Semasiology's idea of agency refers to an individual (or any group of) human beings having the power to initiate bodily movements, hence the power to act, and that is all it means in this context. Here, agency has nothing to do with Marxism, politics, or speaking for another group as an investigator, as in cultural studies. Agency in semasiology has a great deal to do with a theory of human beings as meaning-makers who have the nature, powers, and capacities to act.

Perhaps it is now the case that we are about to enter a 'paradigm' of embodiment (Csordas 1990). Recently, there has been a virtual explosion of literature on 'the body' much of it stimulated by the work of Foucault,5 although in anthropology this explosion also represents renewed interest in a long-standing, if relatively minor, anthropological tradition.6 This attention is part of a radical reconstruction of classical precepts about the nature and role of person and agency and the dualistic thinking that has not only separated body from mind, but also created oppositions between subjective and objective, mental and material behavioral, thinking and feeling, rational and emotional, and verbal and nonverbal.7

Recent interest in the body has centered primarily on the physical body as cultural construct: on its regulation and restraint, as metaphor and machine, represented by such topics as the medical body, the sexual body, the civilized body, the decorated body, the political body and the body as social text. This focus should come as no surprise, perhaps, given a virtual cult of the body in contemporary Western societies, with fetishes ranging from fitness to fat control, and from politically correct body types (Pollitt 1982) to political dissidents' use of fashion as a non-vocal rhetoric (O'Neill 1972). (Farnell 1994: 930–31)

Semasiologists are not solely concerned with human bodies, because they see human beings as powerful persons—not merely powerful bodies. Persons (not bodies) are causal agents, and social actions (not 'behavior') constitute agentive discourse, whether that discourse is spoken or moved. We live in and experience the real world with embodied speech acts and/or action signs, separately or together, but these assertions lead directly into the texture of arguments herein. There is no need to rehearse them further here.


It is with great pleasure that I acknowledge the debt owed to Professor Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who invited me to study social anthropology at Oxford having seen some of my 'pre-anthropological' essays, including "The Dance of the Bedu Moon" that appeared in African arts/arts d'afrique (vol. 1, no. 2, 1969). When I arrived at the Institute of Social Anthropology in 1970 (enrolled as a Diploma student from St. Hugh's College), I met 'E. P.' (as he was fondly known), who, for the next three years until his death in 1973, influenced my academic career far more than I realized or understood at the time. He told me, for example, of the deplorable status of the subject of dancing in the academic world in Britain and America, saying that the main problem regarding the subject within anthropology was the same one he had when he tried to write about Azande dancing in 1928. He felt he didn't know enough about dancing to produce a good ethnographic report about it, but at the same time he felt obliged to try, because he saw that dances constituted a major form of intercommunication and transmission of values among the African peoples he studied.

     Outside of anthropology, he was convinced that the dance was a nonsubject because it is chiefly classified as entertainment in Europe and the Americas. We had many illuminating conversations during the three years I was privileged to know him, but the inspiration for semasiology did not come from Evans-Pritchard alone.

     Foremost among anthropologists are Edwin Ardener, who supervised both my B. Litt. and D. Phil. theses, and David Pocock, because of his "Idea of a Personal Anthropology" (1994 [1973]). Among philosophers, David Best (1974, 1978) and Rom Harré (1972, 1973 [with Madden], 1975 [with Madden]) were outstanding, as were two mathematicians, Chris Edwards and Michael Holt. Thanks to them, I learned enough set theory to produce the necessary specifications for the signifying body and the spaces in which it acts.8

     After leaving Oxford in 1976, I incurred more intellectual debts. Those to Dr. Charles Varela, a sociologist, and Dr. Bonnie Urciuoli, a linguistic anthropologist, deserve special mention: Varela, for patiently working through semasiological theory, insisting that I clarify many aspects of the theory such as alternative descriptions of the body and the spaces in which it moves (Varela 1993) and objectivity (Varela 1994). Urciuoli's contribution to semasiology appeared in the form of an essay published in 1995, entitled "The Indexical Structure of Visibility," after she appeared as a discussant at a panel convened by Brenda Farnell: The Visible and the Invisible: Meaning in Systems of Human Movement (Session 4—019) at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Phoenix, Arizona, in November 1988. Urciuoli met (and taught) Brenda Farnell at Indiana University, during Farnell's tenure as a Ph.D. candidate, thus her grasp of 'action sign systems' was (and is) both accurate and profound.

     For the twenty-four years between teaching the first degree in the anthropology of human movement studies at New York University and now, no one has had more influence on my work than Dr. Brenda Farnell, whose understanding of semasiology began in 1980, continuing through the completion of an M.A. degree in 1983 and a doctoral degree from Indiana University in 1990. It has been her understanding, continued interest, and published support of my work (1994, 1995a, 1995b, and 1999) that finally prompted this rewrite of my own doctoral thesis, and it is to her that I attribute the final formation of this book, for she insists that it is needed for future generations of students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and elsewhere.

     Finally, I must mention Ferdinand de Saussure, without whose influential ideas semasiology would not exist, and special thanks are owed, first, to Dr. Marjorie Franken for valuable input and criticism as a pre-reader and second, to Jonathan David Jackson for his comments on Chapter 15.9


1 These 'earlier approaches' include (a) kinesics: Birdwhistell (1970); (b) proxemics: Hall (1966); (c) standard kinesiological approaches, e.g., Fitt (1979) and Vinje-Morpurgo (1979); (d) standard behavioristic approaches, e.g., Argyle (1970), Argyle and Graham (1975), Prost (1995 [1975]), and Gell (1985); (e) ethological approaches, e.g., Hewes (1955) and Peng (1975); (f) statistical approaches, e.g., Lomax (1968–69); (g) Kaeppler and "emic/etic" approach (1972 and 1997 [1985]); East European "motif-morphology" (Kürti 1980); "dance folkloristics" (Martin & Pesovar 1961); plus the work of Keali'inohomoku (1972 and 1997 [1969]), Stokoe (1980), Kendon (1983), Elam (1980), Kurath (1960), Hanna (1979), Fraleigh (1987), and Royce (1977). Some of these were published after 1975, but the frameworks were being used prior to that time, and many of these are still in use.

2 Sparks (1997: 14) notes the difficulty, by saying that it is "[a] veritable rag-bag of ideas, methods and concerns from literary criticism, sociology, history, media studies, etc. lumped together under the label of cultural studies."

3 I mention performance studies because, especially at New York University, it has produced scholars who are interested in and write about human movement in various ways.

4 "All the basic assumptions of cultural studies are Marxist. This is not to say that all practitioners of cultural studies are Marxists, but that cultural studies itself is grounded in Marxism" (Storey 1997: 3).

5 [Farnell's note]: Foucault (1977, 1978, 1980). I do not attempt to review the broad multi-disciplinary, post-modern literature on the body. See Burroughs & Ehrenreich (1993), Lock (1993), and Scheper-Hughes & Lock (1987) for bibliographies of anthropological contributions. Contributions from sociology include Armstrong (1983), Brain (1979), Featherstone (1982), Featherstone et al. (1991), Freund (1988), Hudson (1982), O'Neill (1985), and Turner (1996 [1984]).

6 [Farnell's note]: See Williams (1991) for references and critical discussion.

7 [Farnell's note]: The post-Cartesian shift that informs my discussion builds on the work of G. H. Mead, the later Wittgenstein (1958 [1953]), and Vygotsky (1986), and is encompassed in the social constructivist perspective espoused by Harré (1984, 1986a), Coulter (1979, 1980), and Warner (1990). It is grounded in the new realist philosophy of science articulated by Harré (1986b) and Bhaskar (1978 [1975]).

8 Editor's note: At this point in the chapter, Williams refers interested readers to the Appendix. The Appendix does not appear in this issue of JASHM but will appear in a subsequent issue.

9 Chapter 15 does not appear in this issue.



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