Friday, March 10, 2017

Foucault's chironomia




aLfrEdo tRifF

...whereas the hands may almost be said to speak. Quintilian

Michel Foucault's personality was intense & deliberate, his explosive laughter was famous. But his hands have not been paid attention to. Foucault's gesticulations exhibit a simmering touch for the dramatic, as if his hands moved following an stylistic poiesis to advance and calibrate his next cogitation. Take for instance, 1:48 when the interviewer goes: "... it's like watching yourself in a mirror and you're both strangers," or 1:58, when Foucault adds:"... how can we know if not with our own knowledge?"

The philosopher sits back at 6:10 and emphatically uses his diestra. Now he addresses a broader (imaginary) audience in the studio (unlike today's politicians, looking straight at the camera to establish customer rapport). @ 6:58 he suddenly leans forward: "... and also this curious notion of humanism..." (the book being discussed, Les mots et le choses, is openly anti-humanist).

@ 7:14 he incidentally looks at the camera ("...on peut dire que l'homme n'existait pas"), but he will really look at the camera to restate this point @ 10:24, after having dropped, en passant, that "Sartre is a philosopher of the 19th Century."


Aristotle is probably the first philosopher to give some serious thought to the hands. On his lesser known On the Parts of Animals, one has a rare chance to see Aristotle the zoologist in action. One marvels at his boundless curiosity, which takes him to ponder the most minute animal morphological details, his conclusions informed by intricate unexpected relationships:
... in elephants, though they must be reckoned polydactylous, as their foot has neither cloven nor solid hoof, the fore-feet, owing to the great size and weight of the body, are reduced to the condition of mere supports; and indeed their slow motion and unfitness for bending make them useless for any other purpose. (Ibid.)
(to his credit, later, in Book 4, 12, Aristotle observes that the elephant's trunk is a kind of a hand)

Here comes the point in the context of handtHiNkInG:
... it is the opinion of Anaxagoras that the possession of these hands is the cause of man being of all animals the most intelligent. But it is more rational to suppose that his endowment with hands is the consequence rather than the cause of his superior intelligence. (Book 4, 9)
Aristotle starts from the premise that if nature gives us hands it is because we can use them, hence we can not find hands in animals that are not intelligent. Following Aristotle's teleological reasoning, for a hand to be such, it must function as such, i.e., the form of a human being is responsible for the matter being the matter that it is, so the form of a human being is responsible for a hand being a hand. 

Quintilian, one of the best rhetoricians of antiquity, offers a different angle in his Institutio Oratio:
As for the hands, without which all action would be crippled and enfeebled, it is scarcely possible to describe the variety of their motions, since they are almost as expressive as words. For other portions of the body may help the speaker, whereas the hands may almost be said to speak. Do we not use them to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion or fear, question or deny? Do we not employ them to indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation, confession, penitence, measure, quantity, number and time? Have they not power to excite and prohibit, to express approval, wonder or shame? Do they not take the place of adverbs and pronouns when we point at places and things? In fact, though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of languages, they share in common the universal language of the hands.
In the 17th Century John Bulwer borrowed Quintilian's idea of universal language to build a vocabulary of hand gestures in his Chirologia, or the Natural Language of the Hand (1644). He seemed to have been influenced by Francis Bacon's idea of "manual hieroglyphics" (which the latter inherited from Valeriano Pierio's Hieroglyphica, 1556). In the end the enterprise may have paid off in a totally different field. 

To the adventurous reader, how about applying Bulwer's coded gesticulations to decipher Foucault's hAnDtHinkinG?

But before we go, how about this photo of our anti-humanist philosopher donning his familiar white turtleneck, gesturing auditoris mitigabit, while guarding the rear of a famous "19th Century" French philosopher?


Ergo: the hand rules.

1 comment:

Dr. Daniel Medina said...

It would be quite interesting to see how the hand gestures of various political figures are interpreted with the chart you provide.