Blog Post

Regular Gesture

Like many of you, I saw James Cameron’s Avatar over the winter break.  The film offers a theory of representation based on a genetic (but technologically sealed) connection between a human interloper’s body and an “Avatar,” a modified, organic, native Na’vi body that can be moved by thought via a semi-organic, “plugged in” technological matrix.  This human technology looks a lot like a tanning bed.  One lies in the medium and is, through a mysterious but explicitly technology-based network, connected to the genetically modified (soulless) native body: a larger, stronger, more agile body.   But, it’s important to see that this “Avatar” technology is just one of three gestural technologies in the film.

These three are: a mechanistic human version (typified in the lumbering mechanical body of the film’s power-mad military leader, Colonel Quaritch) which imagines a mechanical “skeleton” attached to a human body; the Avatar technology previously described, which imagines the technological connection between human and inhuman bodies as slightly less wired, slightly more mystical but crucially technological (shown in the Avatar hub); and, a third version, a naturalized form of “plugging-in,” and which is most clearly seen in the various ways the Na’vi connect with the world around them: merging with other animal occupants of Avatar’s world to produce Na’vi-directed, organic techne for hunting, warring, etc. For example, the Na’vi plug into Ikran, or Banshees (wyvern-like creatures), which enables Na’vi flight. And, importantly, the native network seems vectored unilaterally.  Other than parasitic direction, it’s not clear what the Na’vi brings to its Ikran host, whereas it’s all too clear what the Ikran gives the Na’vi: the Banshee becomes a particularly responsive tool.  To my eye, the primacy of the Na’vi flier in this hybridized body exposes the linguistic root of gesture in Cameron’s film.  In the Na’vi version of connectivity, Cameron suggests there’s a relationship between the Na’vi’s thoughts (or words, in the Avatar-ed Jake Sully’s case) and the Banshee’s movements.  When Jake says (and thinks), for example, “Bank left,” the Banshee banks to the left.   This implies a connection between thought (or speech) and gesture, that one could read backwards from gesture to get to the agent’s thought.

Because of this, the Na’vi form of representational logic offers us an imaginary version of a technological revolution currently underway, namely the great strides in development in xBox’s Project Natal, a motion-capture technology that allows players to use “natural gestures” to direct on-screen motion.  xBox sees this as a next-stage shift, bringing them into more direct competition with Nintendo’s Wii, the revolutionary gaming platform that keys real-world (but mediated) gesture to on-screen action.  The glowing reports of Project Natal make it clear that, in most readers’ eyes, this technology hinges on a (re)naturalizing (re)turn to the gestural body: we’re no longer contorting the virtual body through awkward, real-world digital manipulations (aka, we no longer have mediation!), but by “simply” moving our hands, our legs, our bodies.  Said another way: the assumption is that we can finally play dodge-ball virtually by playing dodge-ball in the world.  But this is not so.  By looking a bit more closely at the technological innovation Project Natal purports to make, we can better see how the techne within Cameron’s film work and, further, what’s at stake for imagining gestural technology as naturalizing technology.  First and foremost, neither Project Natal nor the organic Na’vi technology in Avatar can be considered anti-technological: if we imagine gesture as communication per se, we imagine only mediated gesture.  That is, gesture managed, regulated and shaped to allow its legibility as conceptual communication.

These accounts imply that Project Natal has the capacity to "restore" to us a natural "play" state.  But, importantly, not every version of gesture can be tracked, just managed (i.e.: regulated) ones.  Seen this way, Project Natal is another example of increasingly invisible forms of control.  Anyone who has played a Wii knows this: the technology only reads certain gestures as gestures translatable to the game.  And this regulation crucially undercuts one of gesture’s most compelling aspects: it’s irreducibility to communication.  According to mathematician Brian Rotman, one of the startling things about gesture is that it can't be recuperated entirely to linguistic meaning – it is not an alphabetic form and, as such, can’t be parceled in the way we parcel speech.  Rotman’s recent book Becoming Beside Ourselves (Duke, 2008) suggests that when we assume that gesture appends itself to language, we avoid thinking through one of gesture’s most confusing aspects. 

We tend to consider gesture to be either emphasizing or standing-in for speech (a lecturer snaps his fingers to reiterate a point, a child shakes his head to refuse a disliked food), but Rotman’s book suggests we think harder about the layers of gesture that are non-linguistic, personal, idiosyncratic, and unrelated to either language or conceptual communication.  This way, gesture’s most non-linguistic features become ways of seeing “mere” communication instead of communication as a portmanteau for ideas, concepts, or language.  But, Project Natal masks gesture’s indecipherability by recruiting it solely to meaning or communication.  Which is to say, in my reading of Rotman’s book, it would seem as though the Project Natal version of gesture isn’t gesture at all.

Put very baldly, gesture is not reducible to techne.  Gesture is not regular or smooth as a communicative medium. But both Project Natal and Avatar imagine gestural tools convey meaning.  But, when we compare the real world gesture to the tooled gesture, we see the gaps between the two.  Here is the distinction: somatic gestures are open-ended while technical gestures mean.  Somatic gestures are readable, but not legible.  This gets to one of my main areas of research into the novel: novelistic scenes and descriptions give us one of the most advanced technologies for deploying the gestural outside the real world.  Of course, literary description of gesture is not the same as gesture, but it does show us one of the really important innovations of literary discourse, perhaps especially novelistic discourse.  If, in theatrical productions or films, gesture is moored to language by a performer’s choices about his or her body, in the novel, narrative device places bodies in relation and forces readerly ideation of a gestural body (importantly, one that always already remains not-quite-seen, not-quite-described).  Perhaps one of the most obvious practitioners of this narrative mode, Henry James’s depictions of characters in space demonstrate for us the difficulty of parsing gesture into precise language.

When, for example, we (and Isabel) see Madame Merle and Osmond in bodily relation, we can “read” the scene for meaning (these two bodies have been in explicitly sexual relation at some time in the past), but we also get the sense that embodied expression defies, in some very real way, linguistic expression as such.  Critically, this legible history is not the only thing perceivable when Isabel comes across the pair in the sitting room.  It is translated into this kind of meaning in the novel’s plot, but it stands as a moment when reading is both encouraged and impossible to put into words.  James writes: “But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light.  Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck [Isabel] as something detected,” (Portrait of a Lady, Norton Critical Edition, 343).  We know from this moment that Merle and Osmond share an importantly obscured “something” previously unknown to Isabel, but we cannot, as readers, locate the precise source of this information in their gestures or bodies’ relation.  Indeed, here we see that the somatic gesture can tell us things about narrative or story, but that isn’t the same as imagining gesture as meaning’s conveyance.  When novelists describe bodies in space, they are doing something that pushes against the written quality of the novel.  Sites of bodily description, of bodies in relation or bodies gesturing, are among the most notoriously difficult passages for critics to parse.  I’d claim that this is precisely why such passages so compel novel writers and readers alike: these offer us literary versions of gestural life.  And as writers and readers, we could reduce these moments to fixed meaning, but why stop there?

Claire Jarvis's picture
I'm an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford, working primarily on Victorian literature and culture.