Writing is Gesture: Leroi-Gourhan

In his fascinating Gesture and Speech (1964, 1993) André Leroi-Gourhan traces the development of alphabetic writing considering it a distant consequence of the upright posture that allowed the hand to be free to draw the focus of communication from the face to the techniques of the hand.  The face and graphics are more strongly associated with mythology while the eventual development of alphabetic characters arranged in a linear stream precipitated the emergence of rational thought and philosophy.

There is much of interest in this way of understanding writing and its emergence because it centers the importance of alphabetic writing in the body, particularly the hand, and it identifies alphabetic writing as gesture or technique.  My reading of Leroi-Gourhan indicates something like a simultaneous development of writing gesture and the privilege of reason and thus philosophy suggesting, importantly, that body, that technique, that gesture, is linked at least as much with agency as with expression.  In the long history of human development we think as (not just what) we write and vice versa.  While I think Leroi-Gourhan understands that alphabetic writing and reasoned thought co-developed, my reading of him suggests that he understands writing in more of a utilitarian fashion, as a tool of memory, rather than as a tool of creative and explorative thought.  Clearly the evidence of what the earliest writing was about supports this understanding.  However, this leaves untold the story of when and how writing came to be a creative active powerful heuristic imaginative process, surpassing and complementing the functional characteristics of recording and documenting.

As I am in the process of critiquing academic writing conventions, these observations of Leroi-Gourhan are important.  It is clearly notable that a culture’s or community’s techniques of writing correlate with the way that community or culture thinks and engages the world.  Writing conventions that prohibit first person pronoun, that proceed along a reasoned and factually supported argument from thesis to conclusion, inculcate and reflect a reasoned and linear and factual mind and a world that is similarly ordered and related to.  These conventions correspond with a world that is orderly, firmly based on fact, and that can be understood and fully comprehended by the proper use of reason and objective observation and description.  These conventions correspond with a world where reason reigns and emotion, intuition, experience, subjectivity are excluded as distracting.  Yet, Leroi-Gourhan shows that alphabetic writing is inseparable from the bodily posture of walking upright, inseparable from the hand gaining some role in communication otherwise centered in the face.   Writing is, as Leroi-Gourhan shows us, gesture, a technique of culture and history.  The conventions of specific forms of writing amount to unconsciously used gestures that instill value without ever articulating the value.  The agency of the conventions is in the repetitious unquestioned practices of the body, the hand stringing alphabetic symbols across a blank page under specified constraints.

Leroi-Gourhan, writing in the 1960s discussed the impact of audiovisual innovations as suggesting a shift in gestural practices that he believed might well spell the end of writing.  He explicitly discussed film and audio recordings.  He focused largely on mechanical production and reproduction with hints of electronic media.  Little could he have imagined the developments that have occurred in the last half century.  What might Leroi-Gourhan have thought of the uncontrollable expansion of the Internet, the availability of 6 million songs on iTunes along with 10,000 music videos, 20,000 audio books, 65,000 podcasts, and 500 movies.  What would he have made of YouTube with its 120 million videos (up from only 6 million 3 years ago, only I say!), or Facebook with 500 million active members?  These too are founded in gestures that demand greater analysis than we have yet given them as techniques of culture, especially the bodily implications of these media forms.  Surely, these new media mark ever more strongly than did Leroi-Gourhan the end of writing or at least the necessity of its radical shift.  The interactive and relational character of the Internet engages gestures that defy the values insinuated by academic writing conventions that have changed little in a couple thousand years.  And the extensive research that convincingly grounds mind, value, and meaning in gesture, body, sensorimotor patterns, and bodily movement offer equally powerful challenges to these same conventions.

The future of writing surely lies in that aspect of writing that is a technique of creativity and imagination and exploration.  Until now we have relegated this technique to the sideline where we place art and entertainment; the challenge is how to embrace this technique while retaining some semblance of what we understand as academic.

Sam Gill – August 26, 2010

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One Response to Writing is Gesture: Leroi-Gourhan

  1. charles hurd says:

    I like how make our non-physical beings (mind, value, and meaning) contigent on our physical beings (gesture, body, sensorimotor patterns, and bodily movement). I’ve been exploring this lately, I feel more aware of how much the physical act of speech affects our sense of self. Also I’m aware that writing, reading, and creating with my mind are just as physically taxing as creating with my body. Gestures need to be imparted with chi, prana, energy, what ever you want to call it; this past weekend I wasted all my chi by hiking at 12000 feet on an empty stomach, it took me two days to recover to the point where I could write. These people who go out and binge drink their chi away have none left for the physically demanding gestures required for maximum brain function. The gesture of sitting with a straight back, and open diaghram where the lungs hang free is paramount to resting the brain on the spine and allowing intelligent firing of all 72,000 nerves throughout the body.

    Writing has most definetly become a creative endeavor for me, and so has speaking. I’m glad you recognize that creation is the act which grounds our mind, body, and value, I’ve seen this need for my mental health to create, and know I know why, because without it I have an existential crisis devoid of a grounded mind, body, or value.