Thursday, January 03, 2019

Review of Caradec, Dictionary of Gestures

I have long been interested in the semiotics of gestures, which may either accompany and augment oral utterances, or be employed autonomously. In general, the origins of gestures, such as the raised eyebrow and the insulting middle finger, are lost in the mists of time. Many, if not most of these ploys are limited to particular cultural areas, underlining the care one must use in traveling to foreign countries. 
Yet these generalizations are not always true. An example is the Vulcan Salute, introduced by the actor Leonard Nimoy in a Star Trek episode in 1967. It consists of an extended palm, with two fingers each joined so that a gap appears in the middle. The meaning is “long live and prosper.” Nimoy explains that he derived the gesture from an Orthodox Jewish ceremony he observed as a child. At all events the Vulcan Salute now enjoys world-wide recognition. This is an example of the migration of symbols. 
Another example of migration is the massive, India-originated repertory known as mudra. Adopted in Buddhism, it is widely understood today in much of Asia. 
Alas, you will not find either of these examples discussed in a book that purports to offer a comprehensive, International repertoire. While citations are culled from Italy, the Arab countries, and Japan, there is little to connect these isolated instances. The culture of reference is France - perhaps not surprising in an author whose main area of competence is French argot. The entries tend to be quite brief, affording little attention to earlier forerunners. The author neglects the rich visual material stemming from classical antiquity, comprising vase paintings, sculptures, and coins; material that has been magisterially covered in monographs by Gerhard Neumann (ancient Greece) and Richard Brilliant (Rome).
Whole bodies of material are ignored, such as the gestures of religious orders, the Freemasons, and the sign language of the deaf. There is also no consideration of gestures as pejoration, vehicles of prejudice if you will. While they are now disappearing, the limp wrist and “swishy” gait long existed as slurs against GLBT people.


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