Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement | Vol. 25 No. 1 | BRENDA FARNELL: Editorial Introduction

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Editorial Introduction

Brenda Farnell

This issue of JASHM continues the work of the previous issue and provides readers with three more chapters from Drid Williams's unpublished manuscript "Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts: New Ways of Thinking about Human Movement." The work contains a rewrite of her 1975 doctoral dissertation, which articulates semasiological theory, updated with contributions from her former students and colleagues. Written with prospective students in the anthropology of human movement in mind, in these chapters, Williams describes in detail the fundamental shifts of viewpoint necessary to understand semasiological theory and systematically replaces many older ideas about movement analysis with theoretical principles upon which this new way of thinking and talking about human movement are built.

     JASHM 24 (2) contains the "Introduction" and first three chapters of the manuscript. This issue begins with Chapter 4, "Three Different Realities." The chapter starts with ethnographic descriptions of three different action signs that look the same—three bowing actions. The discussion illustrates how the meaning of such single visible action signs like these depend on invisible features of the whole movement system of which they are a part. Such invisible features might be spatial orientations as different as the geographical directions of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, the embedded liturgical space of the Catholic mass (which retains historical links to actual geographical directions), or the conventional structuring of space on a proscenium theater stage on which ballet dancing is performed. The comparison brings to light how "the features governing the moves in a single action sign [often designated by an English word gloss such as the verb 'to bow'] are often those which influence all of the actions in a system." This ethnographically grounded approach puts the nail in the coffin of universalist methods such as Lomax's choreometrics. They fail because they isolate single movements based on appearance and separate them from the cultural context and events in which they are usually performed, making ethnographically accurate accounts of the meaning of the movement(s) impossible.

     The chapter then proceeds to introduce a fundamental semasiological principle: the distinction between two levels of theorizing about human movement—intransitive and transitive structures. At the metatheoretical or intransitive level, we can say that all human bodies move in spaces of some kind, utilizing the directions of up/down, front/back, right/left and inside/outside in a wide variety of ways. Likewise, all human bodies, unless compromised in some way, share the same basic anatomical possibilities and limitations of movement given the physical structure of our species, homo sapiens sapiens. Each jointing part of the human body has "degrees of freedom" (or anatomical possibilities and limitations) that allow each person to make certain movements given this physical structure.

     These spatial and physical features are the structural universals of human actions that semasiology calls "intransitive structures." How they are utilized in system-specific contexts of action create "transitive structures" of great semantic diversity. As Williams puts it in relation to the transitive spatial structures or "form spaces" of her ethnographic examples, "[W]e see human, moving signifying bodies enacting their selves within the form spaces of an exercise technique, a religious rite and a dance according to semiotic rules that are socio-culturally and linguistically specific."

     The articulation of such metatheoretical (intransitive, structural universals) and theoretical (transitive structures) principles is a crucial move because it introduces social scientific rigor into thinking and talking about human movement, without falling into the trap of reducing discourse about human movement to biological or natural scientific terminology.

     Chapter 5 continues this theme with a focus on the difference between semasiology and the kinds of reductionist discourses that stem from earlier, and some prevailing, behaviorist approaches. In this, Williams follows Evans-Pritchard in the basic conviction that social anthropology is "not a natural science studying physical systems, but one of the humanities investigating moral systems," hence, concerned with all kinds of semantic or meaning making. This move shifted the entire discipline of British social anthropology away from the functionalism of Radcliffe-Brown and toward a new emphasis on human life as the creation and negotiation of meaning. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for seeing movement as "action," rather than "behavior," and explains how and why these two approaches are incompatible and contradictory. Williams uses the work of a self-confessed and committed behaviorist to make a convincing case.

     The chapter then provides further discussion of the concepts of intransitive and transitive structures. Williams illustrates how older theories and methods in the field of human movement studies were influenced by the concepts of space, time, and motion articulated by René Descartes and Isaac Newton. Using Rom Harré's philosophy of science, she illustrates how such theories provided mechanical models of 'behavior' that were reductionist and unable to handle human motion as 'action,' that is, performed by causally empowered agents. Descartes paradigm (the billiard balls example) fails because one cannot identify the source of the action. In the absence of this 'prime mover,' the paradigm cannot account for human beings as agents or 'prime movers' of their own actions. Likewise, Newtonian mechanics provides for a science of 'matter in motion' but not for organisms moving themselves, including humans. In addition, as Williams illustrates, Newtonian mechanics eliminates movement because it can only provide for the measurement of places in space, a sequence of different places perhaps but not the movement between them because that cannot be mathematically defined in this paradigm. This dilemma is also found in Zeno's dichotomy paradox, where rational argument can be used to eliminate motion entirely by using the concept of the infinite division of space into points.

     A theoretical alternative to these inadequacies requires a conceptual shift of the kind offered by semasiology. Abandoning mensurational mathematics (that is, measurement by numbers), one can instead define body movements by specifying the angle of arc from jointing parts of the signifying body. This is also the principle behind Laban's sets of spatial symbols in the movement script Labanotation. The 360 degrees of space in a circle through which movements can pass is divided into sets of eight. This conceptual breakthrough makes it possible to define the path and flow of movements through space/time from the perspective of the human body itself, rather than trying to measure distances from some external viewpoint.

     Chapter 6 continues the presentation of theoretical principles in semasiology by distinguishing between knowing how to dance and the kinds of knowledge required in being an anthropologist or analyst of human movement forms. Examining structural principles and rules that pertain to moving human bodies is like the linguist who studies phonology or syntax (grammar). It is interesting in and of itself and sheds light on human movement systems as structured systems, at various structural levels. For example, the concept of 'transformational rules' for the two legs permits a level of analysis of human actions that is equivalent to 'phonology' in the study of spoken languages. Again, we see the difference between structural unity and semantic diversity and the false correlations made in earlier studies that ignore the difference and assume that "what looks the same means the same" across cultural and linguistic borders. The relationships between culture-specific concepts of space/time/body in spoken language and movement systems are also highlighted.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The title page in Drid Williams's D.Phil. thesis The Role of Movement in Selected Symbolic Systems, volume two (1975).



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