What, precisely, is a gesture? Noun or verb,
the word refers to many things: bodies moving; bodies
not moving but caught in relation; bodies moving in a
specific, learned way; bodies moving in a specific,
unlearned way? Somatic arts – dance, theater, and
musical performance – obviously hinge on the gestural.
Perhaps the gestural marks the residue of the individual
in his chosen art form? The grand jeté is a generic
balletic movement, with Natalia Osipova’s grand jetés
particularly remarkable specimens of that movement, but
it’s the expressive tilt of her head, the grace and
poise of her port des bras that marks her dance as her
In this way, we might begin to see the gestural as
expressive beyond the form of artistic production, but
also constituted by that form.

different question: are humans the only things that can
make gestures?  Would you describe the swing of a
robotic arm as gestural?  A dog’s cocked head?  A dog’s
wagging tail?  A conveyor belt processing apples?  These
light up another element of gesture: when applied to
animals or machines, the term underscores their
proximity to the human; the way the nonhuman can ape –
can mimic – the human.  This href="">GMC
advertisement demonstrates how this mimicry
can trouble the distinction between the human and the
machine: could we call this gestural, or is it just
gesture’s mechanical avatar?

example of the hazy realm the gestural occupies: when
speaking of representational art, we often describe as
gestural a figure with a residue of movement, but when
our attention turns to abstraction, the “gestural” folds
back on the creator, the artist whose gestures pattern
the material’s texture. 

 In literary
practice – if we can even apply the term – could
“gesture” be applied to a passage of ornate language, a
piece of literary ornament, or could it only be applied
to depictions of bodies in space?  It may, in fact, be
perverse to focus on literary gesture when so many other
art forms accommodate the body’s movements more
clearly.  But that’s the last place I want to go in this
brief précis to the colloquy.  In a wonderful passage
from the beginning of Bleak House,
Charles Dickens demonstrates the astonishing capacity of
gestural description to describe character.  Described
as a “mild bald gentleman,” Mr. Jellyby’s submission to
his domineering philanthropist wife only becomes clear
when “[he] sat in a corner with his head against the
wall, as if he were subject to low spirits.  It seemed
that he had several times opened his mouth when alone
with Richard, after dinner, as if he has something on
his mind; but had always shut it again, to Richard’s
exteme confusion, without saying anything.”  In this, we
get both Mr Jellyby’s dejection (his slumped posture),
and his manner’s utter failure to break free from his
body’s conditioning (interrupted incessantly, even when
removed from his family circle, Mr. Jellyby has lost the
capacity to interject, or, it seems, even to speak). 
Dickens’s capacity to flesh out his characters has long
been a topic of critical interest, but here, I think, we
vividly see how this fleshing out requires a careful
attention to the edges of embodied space – the places
where our sensed experience of the world meet that
experience’s observation, that is to say, the gestural


Jarvis, December 2011

Image attribution

Detail from statue of
Constantine, York Minster, York, UK. href="">Stuart
Brown, 2009. href="">CC