Daily Archives: February 19, 2007

The politics of gesture: Historical perspectives

[Michael Braddick, whose essay on civility I just discussed a few days ago, forwarded the following conference announcement, and hopes to post about it here when the conference website goes live in the spring.  We look forward to hearing more about this event.–Best wishes, DM]

(Conference at Humanities Research Institute, Sheffield 15-16 Sept 2007)

Gestures can be powerful means of communicating affirmation and solidarity and, for the same reason, can be powerful means of expressing dissent.  Class, gender and generational relationships are all expressed and reproduced in gestural codes; so, too, are ethnic identities.  Such codes are therefore central to the process of structuration described by Giddens: through individual actions we express, and reproduce, broader social relationships (structures).  By the same token, transgressive gestures, or infractions of gestural codes—such as failing to take off a hat, or an over-familiar use of the hand shake, for example–-can modify or even transform the patterns of social interaction, leading to a more coercive expression of power or, in the absence of such, a dilution of the cultural weight and effectiveness of authority.  Gesture, in other words, can be the battleground over which divergent visions of social and political order are fought.  Of course, these clashes can be  unconscious—for example, in unintended miscommunication at moments of inter-cultural contact—but such unfortunate miscommunications are no less important for their accidental nature, nor less revealing to historians of larger assumptions about social relationships and their regulation.

On the whole, historians have paid more attention to the politics of ritual than of gesture.  Ritual, like gesture, has these functions, and is regularly reproduced, but the distinction perhaps centres on the more consciously articulated and choreographed performances implied by the term ritual, and the greater regularity of gesture.  That more attention has been paid to ritual is in part a reflection of the sources, and by the same token, this has tended to restrict the range of arenas in which these ritual politics are studied, for example by privileging royal and religious authority.  Histories of gesture, on the other hand, have often been preoccupied with chronological change rather than with politics and contestation: for example, shifts from one bodily regime to another, the rise of politeness, or the self.  It is suggested here that through an approach to gesture (as opposed to ritual) which focuses more closely on who is communicating what (and with what success), historians can gain access to a wider range of politics—within the home, between generations and status groups, or between ethnic groups—and of politics in more routine situations.  

In most historical contexts it is difficult to get at actual examples of bodily deportment, except where they were a cause of conflict.  However, it does seem possible to take an historical approach to such moments of conflict, when breaches of gestural codes prompted to violent confrontation, or were perceived to be deliberate subversions of dominant political values—examples of the refusal of deference, or the affectation of unacceptable ‘styles’ provoked attempts to forcibly reassert a particular vision of social and political order.   A second area of interest is in the disruption of political and religious ceremonies—it is easy to think of examples from medieval and early modern
England, but presumably in any number of other places.  Here again the study of gesture offers a way into subaltern, or popular, political attitudes, shedding an oblique light on the everyday politics of class, race and subversive politics.  A final area of interest is the issue of representation and the history of the body.  The politics of the smile, or the kiss, or the handshake are all possibilities; so too the unruly body as a signifier of disorderly life.  These cultural history approaches seem to have the most to offer in opening up the politics of gender and age hierarchies.  Overall, it is clear that the topic prompts diverse responses, but also that there is coherence in a recurrent engagement with, for example, Elias, Goffman, Bourdieu and Foucault.  


Leslie Brubaker, Birmingham: ‘Gesture in Byzantium’ 

Philippe Depreux, Limoges: [tbc: Investiture?]

Peter Coss, Cardiff: ‘Gesture and judgement’ 

Miri Rubin, London: ‘Gestures of pain, implications of guilt: Mary and the Jews’

John Walter, Essex: [tbc: 17th century England]

Jim Sweet, Wisconsin: ‘Gesture, gender, and healing in the African-Portuguese world, 1550-1750’

Karin Sennefelt: Uppsala, ‘The politics of hanging around and tagging along: everyday practices of politics in eighteenth-century Stockholm’ 

Colin Jones, London: ‘Meeting and greeting in late eighteenth-century Paris’   Dallett Hemphill, Ursinus: ‘Manners in the Age of Revolution: A Transatlantic comparison’

David Arnold, Warwick: ‘Salutation and subversion: the gestural politics of nineteenth-century

James Hevia, Chicago: ‘“The ultimate gesture of deference and debasement”: Kowtowing in

Mary Vincent, Sheffield: ‘Expiation as performative rhetoric in national-Catholicism’

Bill Chafe, Duke: ‘Politics in post-world war II America: the politics of gesture writ large’

Mary Fulbrook, London: ‘Enacting the social self: embodiments of status in the two German dictatorships, 1933-89’

Stephan Feuchtwang, London: ‘Commemoration, inclusion and exclusion in China and

Richard Handler, Virginia: ‘Erving Goffman and the gestural dynamics of modern selfhood’