Cultural life is then viewed as a series of texts intersecting with other texts, producing more texts.
Harvey (1990: 49)
Humans convey over two-thirds of their ideas and feelings through the body, producing up to 700,000 physical signs, of which 1000 are different bodily postures, 5000 are hand gestures, and 250,000 are facial expressions (Morris et al. 1979). Logically, the first area to come into the purview of semiotics encompasses the many codes fashioned from the properties of the body. Technically speaking, the study of these codes falls under the rubric of nonverbal semiotics.
The social function of bodily codes is to regulate Self-Other relations; i.e. to ensure that the ways in which people interact in their cultural spheres, and in society generally, are regular and fluid. These codes have evolved in the human species as structural systems designed to maintain cooperation and harmony. Consider the following typical, but hardly trivial, vignette that illustrates how Self-Other relations are regulated in a routine situation by a context-appropriate bodily code.
- An individual in the United States is about to step into an elevator of a skyscraper on the ground floor. Inside, s/he sees three people, all obvious strangers to each other.
- How does s/he know this? S/he knows this because the individuals in the elevator are near or leaning against the walls of the elevator, facing the door or looking down at the ground, and silent.
- Once inside, the individual knows that s/he is expected to assume a similar posture; i.e. to face the door or look down at the floor to avoid eye contact with the others and, of course, to maintain silence.
In short, if s/he is an active participant in American culture, s/he knows the code that is appropriate to this situation. If the individual decides to act in some other way—e.g. to face the others, to look right at them—the others would become uneasy or angry, because they would see h/er behavior as either conflictual or disturbed. To cope with the transgressor’s breach of conduct, they would more than likely ignore h/er actions completely, as if they hadn’t occurred.
Across cultures, bodily codes are the result of a perception of the body as something more than physical substance. Winks, hand gestures, facial expressions, postures, and other bodily actions all communicate something culturally relevant in particular social situations. The body is, in fact, a major source of signification and communication and thus a major target of semiotic inquiry. There are five major types of bodily codes, each of which will be looked at in this chapter: kinesic, facial, proxemic, tactile, and gestural. Kinesic codes are fashioned from bodily movements, postures, etc. believed to bear meaning during social interaction; facial codes are based on the expressive qualities of the face and on eye contact; proxemic codes are fashioned from the distances people feel they should maintain between each other and the orientation that their bodies should assume during interaction; tactile codes are based on the meanings that certain touch patterns are felt to have in social situations; and gestural codes are made from the properties of the hand.
As in all areas of semiotic investigation, the analyst is guided by three basic questions in h/er search to understand nonverbal representational behavior (Chapter 2, §2.1): (1) What does a certain nonverbal sign, code, or text mean? (2) How does it mean what it means? (3) Why does it mean what it means? The semiotician seeks answers to these questions essentially by observing people being themselves in their social ambiances. The observational activities of the semiotician-aspeople-watcher, however, are not random. They are guided by five specific goals:
- identifying the basic signifying properties structuring the observed behaviors (iconicity, indexicality, etc.);
- relating these to the signifying order;
- documenting and explaining the structural effects that bodily codes have on individuals;
- investigating how these codes are interconnected throughout the signifying order;
- utilizing the findings or techniques of any cognate discipline (anthropology, psychology, etc.) that are applicable to the situation at hand.
In pausing to look over the important terrain of bodily-based meaning-making, this chapter constitutes the first stop on our journey through the landscape of culture. In other treatments of nonverbal behavior, the reader will likely see a different organization of the topics; but the goal of most is very much the same as ours—to highlight the role of the body in social interaction.
Before dealing with bodily codes, it is necessary to look at nonverbal semiosis and communication generally, an area of investigation which has itself become a major subfield of theoretical semiotics. The work of Thomas A. Sebeok (1920–), one of this century’s leading semioticians and linguists, has been highly instrumental in expanding the perimeter of this subfield to include the study of semiosis and communication across species. In what is known as the biosemiotic movement, Sebeok has shown that in studying cross-species semiosis, we end up getting a clearer look at what makes human semiosis unique.
Research by animal ethologists has shown how remarkably rich and varied animal communication systems are. They have identified, for instance, birdcalls for courting, mating, hunger, food bearing, territoriality, warning, and distress, and elaborate vocal signals that whales and dolphins deploy to communicate over long distances underwater. Biosemiotics aims to investigate all such patterns, seeking to understand how animals are endowed by their nature with the capacity to use specific types of signals for survival (zoosemiosis), and thus how human semiosis (anthroposemiosis) is both similar to and different from animal semiosis. The objective of this new branch of semiotics is, thus, to distill common elements of semiosis from its manifestations across species, integrating them into a taxonomy of notions, principles, and procedures for understanding this phenomenon in its globality.
The study of animal semiosis and communication actually traces its roots to Darwinian evolutionary biology (Darwin 1859), and especially to Darwin’s 1872 contention that animal behavior constituted a viable analogue for human mental functioning. By the end of the nineteenth century, psychology took a decidedly Darwinian turn. The early experiments in this field led to the classical theory of conditioning in humans. The Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov (1902), for instance, rang a bell while he presented meat to a dog. Initially, only the meat stimulus, not the ringing of the bell, evoked an instinctive salivation response in the dog. However, after repeated bell ringings, Pavlov found that the bell alone would evoke salivation. The dog had obviously “learned” to associate the sound of the bell with the presence of meat. The dog’s learning event was called, appropriately, a conditioned response. It was then claimed that humans too learned in a similar way. Intrigued by such findings, work on animal intelligence was pursued with great fervor during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Robert Yerkes (1916), for instance, succeeded in showing that monkeys and apes had the capacity to transfer their conditioned responses to novel learning tasks. And in 1925 Wolfgang Köhler showed that apes could even devise spontaneous solutions to problems without previous conditioning.
The goal of these early comparative psychologists was to generalize the findings from the animal experiments to human learning. The assumption was that the same laws of conditioning applied across all species and, therefore, that universal principles of learning and problem-solving could be inferred from observing animal behavior. Some psychologists continue to work under this very assumption. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, the use of animals as convenient substitutes for people in the laboratory came under attack and a new movement emerged, known as ethology, stressing that animals and people lived in separate worlds, and that animals should be studied within their natural habitats.
Soon after, some researchers became intrigued by the possibility of teaching human systems of communication to animals. This led to the widely known “ape language experiments” that started in the 1950s. Although there have been reports of some symbolic activity, of some comprehension of humor, and of some control of sentence structure, these experiments have not yet established the capacity for human language or for human symbolicity in primates.
These experiments were ingenious above all else in the ways in which they got around the incapability of gorillas and chimpanzees to speak because of the fact that they lack the requisite vocal organs. The first experimenters, for instance, chose American Sign Language (ASL) as the code for teaching apes human language. One of the first subjects was a female chimpanzee named Washoe whose training by the Gardner husband and wife team (B. T. Gardner and R. A. Gardner 1969, R. A. Gardner and B. T. Gardner 1975) began in 1966 when she was almost one year of age. Remarkably, Washoe learned to use 132 ASL signs in just over four years. What appeared to be even more remarkable was that Washoe began to put signs together to express a small set of ideas. Inspired by the results obtained by the Gardners, others embarked on an intensive research program, aiming to expand upon their teaching procedures, that is still ongoing today. The Premacks (e.g. Premack and Premack 1983), for example, whose work actually began as far back as 1954 with a five-year-old chimpanzee named Sarah, taught their subject a form of written language. They instructed Sarah to arrange and respond to vertical sequences of plastic tokens on a magnetic board which represented individual words: e.g. a small pink square = “banana,” a small blue triangle = “apple,” etc. Sarah eventually developed the ability to respond to combinations of such symbols, which included references to abstract notions.
Although there was an initial wave of enthusiasm over such results, with the media reporting on them on a regular basis, there really has emerged no solid evidence to suggest that chimpanzees and gorillas are capable of verbal behavior and symbolicity in the same way that humans are, or of passing on to their offspring what they have learned from their human mentors. These experimenters appear to refuse to accept the inevitable fact that most of human representational activity is species-specific.
Nevertheless, the study of primate communication in itself remains a fascinating area of scientific investigation that falls well within the purview of biosemiotics. The objective in biosemiotics, however, is not to determine whether primates can speak like humans, but rather to learn what semiosic capacities they share with humans. It is likely that certain properties or features of semiosis cut across species, while others are specific to one or several species. Determining the universality or specificity of particular semiosic properties is a much more realizable goal than determining if animals are able to speak. Sebeok, for instance, has documented the manifestations of iconicity in vastly different species—suggesting that it is a cross-species property. As a case-in-point, he has singled out termite mound constructions. These mounds have extremely hard walls, constructed from bits of soil cemented with saliva and baked by the sun. Inside the walls are numerous chambers and galleries, interconnected by a complex network of passageways. The ventilation, drainage, and heat required for hatching the eggs are obtained from the fermentation of organic matter, which is stored in the chambers serving as nurseries. Of more than 55 species common in the US, the majority build their nests underground. The subterranean termites are extremely destructive, because they tunnel their way to wooden structures, into which they burrow to obtain food. Upon closer scrutiny, termite mound constructions reveal that they are hardly without semiosic properties. These mounds, in fact, mirror the constituents of the termite’s social evolution, even after the colony itself has become extinct. In semiotic terms, it can be said that these mounds are iconic “expressions” of the genetically imprinted social system of these insect architects. This is an example of unwitting iconicity manifesting itself in Nature as a concomitant of a specific life scheme.
Biosemiotics takes its impelus from the work of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1909), who provided empirical evidence to show that an organism does not perceive an object in itself, but according to its own particular kind of mental modeling system (chapter 3, §3.2). This allows the organism to interpret objects and events in a biologically unique way and, subsequently, to respond to them in semiosically specific ways. For von Uexküll, the modeling system of a species routinely converts its external world experiences, which can be called cognizing states, into internal states of knowing and remembering in terms of the particular features of that system, which can be called recognizing states. This in no way implies that animals do not have consciousness, emotions, or intelligence, nor that they are incapable of communicating their feelings, drives, and urges effectively. Rather, it means that their cognizing and recognizing states are vastly different from human ones. Moreover, while semiosis is a feature of all life forms, representation is not. There is no evidence to even hint that an animal can (or desires to) understand the meanings that we humans extract from a painting, feel the moods evoked by a Beethoven piano sonata, comprehend the intent of a narrative, and so on.
The goal for biosemiotics is thus not to determine whether or not it is possible to teach animals human representational systems, but to learn whether interspecies communication, without human intervention, is part of Nature’s overall plan. While we may not be able to communicate with other species in the same ways that we do with each other, there is a level at which we do indeed “make contact” with some species. There is no doubt, for instance, that a house cat and a human enter into a rudimentary form of communication on a daily basis. Sharing the same living space, and relying on each other for affection, they do indeed communicate their feeling-states to each other in a patterned fashion. They do this by sending out signals and by utilizing bodily based modes of communication. Tones of voice, postures, movements are the signifiers that are forged from their mutually-developed “interspecies communication code.” This code reflects the deployment of basic semiosic strategies that appear to cut across human and feline communication systems, emerging adaptively from the shared experiences of the two species.
Among the first to emphasize the differences between human and animal systems was the American linguist Charles Hockett (1960). He did this by elaborating a set of 13 design features of verbal communication against which it was possible to compare systems across species:
|DESIGN FEATURE||PROPERTIES AND MANIFESTATIONS|
|1.||Auditory-vocal||This feature refers to the fact that language involves mainly auditory and vocal processes, as opposed to visual, tactile, or other modes of communication.|
|2.||Broadcast transmission and directional reception||This feature refers to the fact that a verbal signal can be heard by any auditory system within ear range, and to the fact that the source can be located with the ears’ direction-finding capacity.|
|3.||Rapid fading||This feature refers to the fact that auditory signals are transitory and do not await the hearer’s convenience.|
|4.||Interchangeability||This feature refers to the fact that speakers of a language can reproduce any linguistic message they can understand.|
|5.||Total feedback||This feature refers to the fact that speakers of a language hear and can reflect upon everything that they say (unlike the visual displays often used in animal courtship signaling).|
|6.||Specialization||This feature refers to the fact that the sound waves of speech have no function other than to signal meaning.|
|7.||Semanticity||This feature refers to the fact that the elements of the linguistic signal convey meaning through their stable reference to real-world situations.|
|8.||Arbitrariness||This feature refers to the fact that there is no necessary dependence of the verbal signal on the nature of the referent.|
|9.||Discreteness||This feature refers to the fact that speech uses a small set of sound elements (phonemes) that form meaningful oppositions with each other.|
|10.||Displacement||This feature refers to the fact that language has the capacity to refer to situations remote in space and time from their occurrence.|
|11.||Productivity||This feature refers to the fact that messages in language are constructed by using old elements to produce new ones.|
|12.||Traditional transmission||This feature refers to the fact that language is transmitted from one generation to the next primarily through a process of teaching and learning (not by genetic inheritance).|
|13.||Duality of patterning||This feature refers to the fact that verbal sounds have no intrinsic meaning in themselves but combine in different ways to form elements (e.g. words) that do convey meanings.|
Hockett’s typology has made possible a concrete comparison of animal and human communication systems on the basis of specific features. As mentioned above, the bodily-based mode of communication is the one that perhaps most cuts across communication systems. However, even with the deployment of this versatile communicative mode, there is no way for a human to communicate a broader range of feeling-states to an animal—states that are implied, for instance, by words such as embrace, guide, hold, kiss, spank, tickle, etc. Interspecies communication is realizable, but only in a very restricted sense. It can occur in some modes, partially or totally, to various degrees according to species. If the design features of the communicative modes of the two species are vastly different, however, then virtually no message transmission is possible.
In addition to design features, communication systems can be compared in terms of the media with which, or through which, messages are transmitted. Again, human transmission differs from animal transmission in that it includes artifactual and mechanical media in addition to the natural media:
- natural media are biologically-based media: e.g. the voice (speech), the face (expressions), and the body (gesture, posture, etc.);
- artifactual media are human-made media: e.g. books, paintings, sculptures, letters, etc.;
- mechanical media are also human-made media: e.g. telephones, radios, television sets, computers, videos, etc.
A verbal message, for instance, can be delivered through natural transmission, if it is articulated with the vocal organs; or else it can be transmitted by means of markings on a piece of paper through the artifactual medium of writing; and it can also be converted into radio or television signals for mechanical (electromagnetic) transmission. There is no evidence of any use of artifactual or mechanical media in animal species.
Another perceptive method of comparing human and animal communication systems has been fashioned by the semiotician Thomas A. Sebeok. His insightful typology includes the following six crucial features:
- Innate Modeling Capacities: This refers to the fact that all organisms possess species-specific inner modeling capacities that allow them to respond in kind to their outer experiences.
- Vocality: This refers to the fact that signals and messages can be transmitted vocally or nonvocally. Bird communication, for instance, is vocal; bee-dancing is nonvocal.
- Verbality: This refers to the fact that verbal communication is unique to the human species. All other communication systems in Nature are nonverbal. Language is verbal, but not necessarily vocal (e.g. it can be communicated also by means of alphabet characters, gestures, etc.); speech, on the other hand, is both vocal and verbal.
- Wittingness: This refers to the fact that certain messages are unwitting (e.g. the signals sent out by pupil responses); others are witting, showing purposeful and intentional behavior.
- Hemisphericity: This refers to the fact that human communication involves bilaterality, i.e. the cooperation of the functions associated with the left and right hemispheres.
- Formation: This refers to the fact that communication systems are formed in the organism by exposure to appropriate input in social context and are subject to change or even dissolution over time. In all species other than the human, systems are formed primarily through the biological channel; only human beings acquire their ability to communicate both from biology and from culture.
The value of this typology lies in providing the specific biological and psychological categories for separating human from animal communication capacities. Communication in animal species serves a survival function. The exchange of signals helps animals find food, migrate, or reproduce. But humans have developed complex forms of communication that are used not only to ensure survival, but also to express ideas and emotions, to tell stories and remember the past, and to negotiate with one another. There is no evidence to suggest that an animal understands the meanings that we humans communicate on a daily basis.
Kinesic codes regulate how people behave physically in certain social situations. They are a product of cultural history and convention. Recall the elevator vignette described above (§4.0). This time, imagine that the stomach of one of the passengers sends out one of those uncontrollable growls that result from hunger, digestion, or some other bodily process. Undoubtedly, s/he will feel embarrassed or uneasy, even though s/he knows that s/he has no control over a sound emitted naturally by the body. This is because the kinesic code that applies to the “elevator situation” does not permit any sound to break the measured silence in the cubicle. So, as a socially redeeming strategy the individual might excuse h/erself, make an ironic or facetious remark about the sound, attempt to hide it by making some more kinesically acceptable noise (like clearing h/er throat), or ignore it completely as if it hadn’t occurred.
The sounds made by the body—sneezing, coughing, burping, etc.—and the fluids that issue forth from it are interpreted in terms of the kinesic codes that regulate a specific situation. These codes also prescribe what body image is socially acceptable. In contemporary Western society, for instance, the “slim, lean look” is a condition for attractiveness for both males and females. The margin of flexibility from any idealized thinness model is larger for males than it is for females, but males must additionally strive to develop a muscular look.
Kinesic codes are derived from the particular type of anatomy that characterizes the human body. The details of skeletal structure distinguishing Homo sapiens from its nearest primate relatives—the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan—stem largely from a very early adaptation to a completely erect posture and bipedal striding walk. The uniquely S-shaped spinal column places the center of gravity of the human body directly over the area of support provided by the feet, thus giving stability and balance in the upright position (chapter 1, §1.3). So, many bodily movements and postures are inherited through our bipedal evolutionary legacy. But the break with this legacy can be seen in the cross-cultural tendency to walk and assume postures in ways designed to generate social meaning. In social contexts, bodily posture and body image are perceived to be part of Self-presentation, not Self-preservation.
Consider posing. In courtship displays, for instance, the posing actions that males and females execute are hardly spontaneous. They are in fact regulated by culture-specific kinesic codes. The minimal units that make up such codes are called kinesthemes (or kinemes), in analogy with phonemes (the minimal units of sound in a language). Courtship kinesthemes can be discerned, for example, in flirting situations in which strangers attracted to each other sexually commonly participate. In North American culture, the male in such a situation attempts typically to look “virile” by assuming a form of posing involving the cocking of the head, an exaggerated tone of voice, and a pseudo-nonchalant attitude towards the female suitor as he casts glances towards her. The female, on the other hand, will typically tilt her head down and to the side as she looks away. This is meant to attract the attention of the male. By cocking the head and looking up shyly at a potential suitor, the female establishes a closer affective linkage with the male. Raising the shoulder, arching the back, tossing the head in one sweeping motion, and playing with the hair are all female courtship kinesthemes in such situations. A female might also tuck her hair behind her ear (if she wears longer hair) to expose her neck, an alluring erogenous zone for males. Taking notice of a specific female, a particular male will react by engaging in exaggerated movements—linking his hands behind his head with his chest out, laughing loudly, swaying markedly, etc. Similar codes exist across cultures. The meanings of the kinesthemes are highly variable and annotative (chapter 3, §3.5), but they nonetheless cohere into a coded system of signification that tends to regulate interaction in courtship situations.
Courtship displays in all species may look comical or absurd to outsiders, but to the members of the species concerned they constitute a crucial kinesic mode of communication at a key stage in the enactment of reproductive urges. In humans, these displays make sense only if the appropriate physical and social contexts are present during courtship or flirtation. So, while human kinesic codes may be residues of some ancient animal signaling mechanism, as some sociobiologists suggest, the great diversity that is evident in human courtship displays across cultures suggests that they are not mere contemporary versions of instinctual mating behaviors. Rather, they are shaped in large part by human notions of gender and romance and are, therefore, constantly subject to change. In the human species, courtship is not only a reflex of biology, but also a product of history and tradition. Like any code of the signifying order, it is the outcome of Nature and Culture cooperating in a type of partnership that is found nowhere else in the animal realm.
Kinesic codes also mediate people’s perception of which bodily parts or zones are erogenous. More technically, some bodily parts are perceived across cultures as kinesic signifiers that connote specific erotic signifieds. In her fascinating book The Gift of Touch (1983), Helen Colton has documented how such codes influence people’s view of which female bodily parts are erotic. She did this by asking females living in diverse societies the following question: If a stranger were to come upon you taking a bath, then what bodily part or area would you cover? As Colton found out, the answer depended on the culture in which the woman was reared:
- An Islamic woman would cover her face.
- A Laotian woman would cover her breasts.
- A Chinese woman would hide her feet.
- A Sumatran woman would conceal her knees.
- A Samoan woman would cover her navel.
- A Western woman would cover her breasts with one arm and her genital area with the other hand.
With regard to this topic, the semiotician Michel Foucault (1926-1984) argued persuasively that the “sins of the flesh” are hardly universal. They too must be defined culturally. The Puritans of England, for instance, saw any form of sexual contact or gazing in a marriage situation as a kind of “necessary sin.” “Sexual temptation” is still felt by some people to be “sinful.” This is why many current-day conservative politicians are wont to condemn “obscene materials,” young people’s “lack of morals,” and the “scourge of sexual sins,” even when they seem to be actively engaged in sexual activities hypocritically behind the scenes. On the other hand, the many “hedonistic” rites and practices of our own and other cultures exalt and glorify the eroticism of the human body. Obviously, what is “obscene” behavior to some is “natural” or “desirable” behavior to others. While sexual urges are based in biology, perceptions of what is or is not erotic, sinful, or obscene are ensconced in cultural traditions and habits.
Humans, like other animals, sense and respond instinctively to the maleness or femaleness of another human. Across the animal realm, such responses are elicited by sexual signals during estrus (going into heat). From an evolutionary perspective, however, the human species has developed a sexuality independent of estrus. Other animals experience chemical and physical changes in the body during estrus which stimulate desire. People are the reverse. They normally experience desire through mental stimulation first and then experience estrus-type changes in the body. Thus, what is sexual is literally in the mind of the beholder.
But the human story of sex does not end there. Throughout the world, certain behaviors are perceived as constituting male and female sexuality. These result in the gender codes that define “masculinity” and “femininity” within a tribe or society. This is why gender behaviors vary considerably: e.g. in Western society, men are often expected to be the “sex-seekers,” to initiate courtship, and to show an aggressive interest in sex; but among the Zuñi peoples of New Mexico, these very same actions and passions are expected of the women.
In terms of the dimensionality principle (chapter 3, §3.9) a representamen that stands for something sexual, erotic, etc. constitutes a sign that will be interpreted in terms of (1) its physical sex designations (firstness), (2) its sexuality annotations (secondness), and (3) its gender implications (thirdness):
Sex is a firstness process that implies an either/or relation (male vs. female); sexuality is a secondness psychological reaction, developed in terms of individual and culturally based patterns of behavior; gender is a thirdness conventional code influencing what the sign (behavior) entails in social terms. Note that if a person alters h/er biological sex, by surgery and hormone treatment, then that person’s sexuality patterns will change accordingly. Culturally, too, the person’s gender will be redefined as a “new sexual persona,” and s/he will start behaving in gender-coded ways.
In 1963 the psychologist Paul Ekman established the Human Interaction Laboratory in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco for the empirical study of facial expression. He was joined by Wallace V. Friesen in 1965 and Maureen O’Sullivan in 1974. Over the years, Ekman and his team have been able to link specific facial actions to different aspects of emotion. A facial action is called a viseme (or videme). Ekman has shown that a specific viseme can be broken down into components—eyebrow position, eye shape, mouth shape, nostril size, etc.—which in various combinations determine its meaning (which is generally connotative in social situations). Ekman found that very little visemic variation exists in the facial codes of different cultures. Indeed, he has shown that it is possible to write a “grammar” of the face that shows less cross-cultural variation than do language grammars.
Psychologists have also found that specific individuals are responsive sexually to certain particular kinds of faces and not to others from puberty onwards. One explanation as to why such preferences surface at puberty is the formation of what the psychologist Money (1986) calls “lovemaps” in the mind. These are mental images that determine the kind of face that will evoke sexual arousal and love moods (such as infatuation) in an individual. Lovemaps are developed during childhood in response to various experiences and influences. At adolescence, they unconsciously generate an image of what the ideal sweetheart should be like, becoming quite specific as to details of the physiognomy and facial appearance of the ideal lover.
All this suggests that the face is perceived as a signifier standing for the Self. This would explain why people prepare the face for presentation to social audiences, decorating it according to situation. Facial decorations and alterations constitute representational activities regulated by facial grooming and appearance codes. From the beginning of time, human beings have “made up” their faces to convey sexual persona. As the anthropologist Helen Fisher (1992: 272-273) has aptly remarked, in fact, the archeological evidence reveals that the cosmetic making up of the face is a characteristic representational activity that goes right back to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, who would apparently decorate their faces, plait their hair, and don garlands of flowers to show off sexually for one another around the fire’s glow.
Facial decoration is also characteristic of fertility and passage rites. For example, the pubescent males of the Secoya people who live along the Rio Santa Naría in Peru wear a sprig of grass through their nasal septum (the partition that divides the two nasal cavities) for the traditional circumcision rite of passage. In some tribal Gê societies of Brazil, when a young man becomes a father for the first time a saucer-like plate, which may reach a diameter of four inches, is inserted through the flesh of his lower lip to symbolize his passing from boyhood to manhood. Although Westerners might consider such forms of facial alteration disfiguring or mutilating, one must not forget Western practices like ear-piercing, nose-piercing, and even straightening, capping, or bleaching the teeth—all of which might appear just as mutilating to other peoples.
It is interesting to note that the perception of the face as a purveyor of persona permeates the signifying orders of cultures throughout the world—a pattern that reflects what we will call the interconnectedness principle in the remainder of this book. This principle posits that a specific meaning (or signified) considered vital by members of a culture will be encoded in various verbal and nonverbal ways throughout the culture’s signifying order—in language, in bodily codes, in artistic practices, etc. The interconnectedness of the “face-as-persona” concept shows up not only in facial codes and representational activities but also, for example, in language, as can be seen in expressions such as the following:
- We argued face to face.
- Don’t show your face on my property again.
- He criticized the supervisor to her face.
- Put on a happy face.
- You wear your feelings on your face.
- You can see his hypocrisy on his face.
- He’s just another pretty face.
This same concept shows up as well in portraiture practices. These inhere in the visual representation of a subject whose facial appearance, as depicted by the artist, is typically interpreted by viewers as a visemic clue provided by the artist for understanding the subject’s character, social position, profession, etc. The interconnectedness principle, as we shall see in the final chapter (§12.2), provides a basic framework for studying the ways in which the codes of a signifying order are linked holistically together by basic concepts such as this one.
Of particular importance to social interaction is eye contact. Across cultures, the length of time involved in making eye contact conveys what kind of relationship people have with each other. Staring is often interpreted as a challenge or flirtation. Making eye contact early or late during a verbal exchange will indicate the kind of relationship one wishes to have with the interlocutor. Narrow eyelids communicate pensiveness, whereas the eyebrows made to come nearer together communicate thoughtfulness, and when made to rise, surprise.
Clearly, eye contact and eye configuration patterns may in part be anchored in evolution and anatomy, but there are many aspects that are culture-specific—southern Europeans will tend to look more into each other’s eyes during conversation than do North Americans; in some cultures males do not look into female eyes unless they are spouses or members of the same family; and so on. The minimal units of gazing and looking that are meaningful in a culture can be called ocularemes (again in analogy with phonemes). In North American culture, for instance, where the male is expected to be the sex seeker, ocularemic patterns such as gazing, staring, gaping, glaring, peering, and ogling are expected more often than not of the male. Gazing refers to prolonged looking that is often indicative of sexual wonder, fascination, awe, or admiration. Staring is an audacious or insolent form of gazing. Gaping refers to a prolonged open-mouthed look reflecting sexual amazement or awe. Glaring is a harder, more piercing form of staring. Peering is looking narrowly, searchingly, and seemingly with difficulty. Ogling is staring in an amorous, usually impertinent manner. In effect, Western cultural history dictates that men should be the gazers and women the ones looked at. Although this has been changing since the late 1960s, the remnants of this cultural trend are still found throughout the signifying order—in language, courtship behaviors, artistic representations, etc.
Proxemic codes regulate the distances people maintain between each other and the ways they orient their bodies when interacting in social situations. For example, when strangers of the opposite sex in our society are introduced to each other, each one knows not only to extend the right hand to initiate a handshake, but also how far to stand from the other. They would also not touch any other part of the body—arms, face, etc.
Such codes are the product of the interaction between biological mechanisms and cultural tradition. This is why they vary widely across the world. At sporting events or theaters, for instance, North Americans usually slide into a crowded aisle while facing forwards with their back to the people already seated, avoiding eye contact; Russians, on the other hand, face the people already seated. People in other cultures stand closer to each than we do during social contact. The semiotic gist of the story is that interpersonal space is imbued with meaning and that the social behaviors that are considered to be the norm within specific kinds of spaces are regulated by proxemic codes that must be learned in cultural context.
The term proxemics was coined by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1966) as the study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals. At a firstness level, proxemic structures are reflective of the biological mechanism known as territoriality, one of several mechanisms by which animals control access to critical resources, such as food or nesting sites. All animal species compete for territories, either fighting actual battles or performing ritual combats as tests of strength. Each species has the biological means of seeking out appropriate territories for its survival, of marking them, and of defending them. Intrusion into the territory is perceived instinctively as a signal of aggression. Cats, for example, mark the boundaries of their proclaimed territory by urination, and are prepared to challenge any intrusions into the territory aggressively. We do an analogous thing, by the way, by marking off our own appropriated territory (home) by various props (doors, fences, landmarks, etc.). And like other animals, we are willing to protect the territories we occupy with aggression.
The territoriality mechanism became the target of behavioral psychologists in the middle of the twentieth century, when their experiments received much media attention because of the implications they seemed to have at the time for life in modern crowded urban centers. The gist of these experiments can be outlined as follows. When two laboratory rats were enclosed in the same cage, the researchers found that they would instinctively seize areas of approximately equal dimensions. When a third rat was introduced into the same cage, then a tripartite arrangement of subdivided areas would seem to be negotiated among the three rats. However, there always seemed to be some initial reluctance to do so, as signaled by minor altercations among the three rats at the beginning of the negotiations. As each extra rat was introduced progressively into the same environment, more reluctance and aggression would ensue until a “critical mass” would apparently be reached at which the rats in the cage would either fight aggressively and relentlessly or demonstrate some form of aberrant behavior. The implications for urban overcrowding that those experiments apparently had were not missed by journalists and reporters. They also seemed to provide an explanation as to why some people “snap,” as the expression goes, when this critical mass is surpassed; and why others seek rational solutions such as escaping into the suburbs, moving into the country, etc.
Another implication that was derived from the above experiments was the fact that we all need to maintain a boundary around ourselves for our protection and sanity. Hall (1966) was among the first to see the relevant implications and, thus, to investigate the patterns and dimensions of the zones people establish and maintain between each other when interacting. He noted that these could be measured very accurately, allowing for predictable statistical variation, and that the boundary dimensions varied from culture to culture. Each meaningful interpersonal zone can be called a proxeme (in analogy with phoneme, kinestheme, etc.). In North American culture, Hall found that a distance of under six inches between two people was perceived as an “intimate” distance, while a distance from 1.5 to 4 feet was the minimum perceived as safe. Intruding upon the limits set by this boundary causes considerable discomfort. For example, if a stranger were to talk at a distance of only several inches away from someone, s/he would be considered rude or even aggressive. If the “safe” distance were breached by some acquaintance, on the other hand, the breach would be interpreted as a sexual advance.
More specifically, Hall identified four types of culturally elaborated proxemes: intimate, personal, social, and public. He further subdivided these into “far” and “close” phases:
Intimate Proxeme (0 in. – 18 in.)
- At intimate distance, all the senses are activated and the presence of the other person or persons is unmistakable. The close phase (0 in. – 6 in.) is an emotionally-charged zone reserved for love-making, comforting, and protecting; the far phase (6 in. – 18 in.) is the distance at which family members and close friends interact. Touch is frequent at both phases of intimate distance.
Personal Proxeme (1.5 ft. – 4 ft.)
- This is the minimum comfortable distance between non-touching individuals. In the close phase (1.5 ft. – 2.5 ft.), one can grasp the other by extending the arms. The far phase (2.5 ft. – 4 ft.) is defined as anywhere from one arm’s length to the distance required for both individuals to touch hands. Beyond this distance the two must move to make contact (e.g. to shake hands). In essence, this zone is reserved for informal contact between friends. It constitutes a small protective space that separates the Self from the Other.
Social Proxeme (4 ft. - 12 ft.)
- This distance is considered non-involving and non-threatening by most individuals. The close phase (4 ft. – 7 ft.) is typical of impersonal transactions and casual social gatherings. Formal social discourse and transactions are characteristic of the far phase (7 ft. - 12 ft.). This is the minimum distance at which one could go about one’s business without seeming rude to others.
Public Proxeme (12 ft. and beyond)
- At this distance, one can take either evasive or defensive action if physically threatened. Hall notes that people tend to keep at this distance from important public figures or from anyone participating at a public function. Discourse at this distance will be highly structured and formalized (lectures, speeches, etc.).
Proxemic codes are interconnected with the other codes of the signifying order (the interconnectedness principle). Utterances such as “Keep your distance,” “They’re very close,” “We’ve drifted far apart,” “You’re trespassing into my personal space,” “I can’t quite get to him,” “Please keep in touch,” etc. are all verbal reflexes of proxemic signifieds. Incidentally, research has demonstrated consistently that the relative ages, genders, levels of familiarity, and social roles of the individuals involved in an interpersonal encounter, as well as the perceived attractiveness of an interlocutor, are factors that influence proxemic zones in interactive settings.
Bodily orientation is also regulated by a proxemic code. If someone is standing up at the front of an audience, s/he is perceived as more important than those sitting down. Speeches, lectures, classes, musical performances, etc. are oriented in this way. Officials, managers, directors, etc. sit behind a desk to convey importance and superiority. Only their superiors can walk behind the desks to talk to them. To show friendliness, the person behind the desk will have to come out and sit with h/er interlocutor in a different part of the room.
In most cultures, one of the constituents of greeting involves a form of handshaking. This is an example of a social behavior regulated by a tactile code, i.e. a code that regulates the patterns of touch in interpersonal situations. In modern urban centers, and in Western culture generally, people rarely touch each other. Some clinical psychologists have even attributed most of our anxieties and emotional syndromes to this apparent cultural fear and abhorrence of touch. The modern fields of dance and touch therapy have been developed, in fact, as a means to help people express themselves and relate to others through movement and touch.
The minimal units of touch (where to touch, duration of the touch, etc.) can be called tactemes (in analogy with phonemes, kinesthemes, etc.), and the type of communication that is based on touch is known more technically as haptic. The most common form of haptic communication is handshaking. The zoologist Desmond Morris (1969) claims that the Western form may have started as a way to show that neither person was holding a weapon. It thus became a “tie sign,” because of the bond it was designed to create. Throughout the centuries, this sign became a symbol of equality among individuals, being used to seal agreements of all kinds. Indeed, refusing to shake someone’s outstretched hand continues, to this day, to be interpreted as a sign of aggressiveness or as a challenge. Predictably, this form of haptic greeting reveals a high degree of cross-cultural variation. People can squeeze the hand (as Europeans and North Americans do), shake the other’s hand with both hands, shake the hand and then pat the other’s back or hug h/er, lean forward or stand straight while shaking, and so on. But haptic communication is not limited to handshake greetings. Other manifestations of haptic behavior include patting someone on the arm, shoulder, or back to indicate agreement or to compliment; linking arms to indicate companionship; putting one’s arm around the shoulder to indicate friendship or intimacy; holding hands with family members or a lover to express intimacy; hugging to convey happiness at seeing a friend or a family member; and so on.
Anthropologists are unclear as to why tactile and haptic codes vary so much across cultures. In our opinion, it is due to differing perceptions of the Self. People in some cultures seem to think of themselves as literally “contained” in their skin. The zones of privacy that define “Self-space” in these cultures, therefore, include the clothes that cover the skin. On the other hand, in other cultures the Self is felt to be located down within the body shell, resulting in a totally different perception and coding of proxemic, tactile, and haptic behaviors. As a consequence, people in these cultures are in general more tolerant of crowds, of noise levels, of the touching of hands, of eye contact, and of body odors than most North Americans are (Hall 1966).
One aspect of tactile behavior that is shrouded in evolutionary mystery is “lip touching” in the human species, known, of course, more commonly as kissing. When the lips of both people touch, kissing is perceived normally as erotic. But not all kissing is, of course, erotic. It can be a way of showing affection to children, friends, pets, etc. But erotic kissing is particularly interesting as an evolutionary and cultural phenomenon. It seems to be a kind of mock-suckling or mock-feeding of the sexual partner, implying vulnerability, closeness, and sensuality. This is perhaps why prostitutes may be willing to perform a variety of sexual acts for hire, but generally draw the line at kissing. However, erotic kissing is not universal. It is not common in China or Japan, for instance; it is completely unknown in some African tribal societies. Traditional Inuit and Laplander societies are more inclined to rub noses than to kiss.
Gesture is representation and communication involving the hands, the arms, and to a lesser extent, the head. Gesture is found in humans and primates. For example, chimpanzees raise their arms in the air as a signal that they want to be groomed; they stretch out their arms to beg or invite; and they have the ability to point to things (Beaken 1996: 51). These gestures are, evidently, purposeful and regulatory of the actions of other chimps. But the number of gestural signifiers of which chimpanzees are capable is limited. Human gesturing, on the other hand, is productive and varied. It encompasses, for instance, the many sign languages used in communities of the hearing-impaired, the alternative sign languages used by religious groups during periods of imposed silence, the hand signals used by traffic personnel, and the hand and arm movements used to conduct an orchestra. Some gestures can have quite specific meanings, such as those for saying good-bye or for asking someone to approach. Other gestures more generally accompany speech, such as those used to emphasize a particular point. Although there are cross-cultural similarities in gesture, substantial differences also exist both in the extent to which gesture is used and in the interpretations given to its particular uses. In 1979, Desmond Morris, together with several of his associates at Oxford University, examined 20 gestures in 40 different areas of Europe. The research team found some rather fascinating things. For instance, they discovered that many of the gestures had several meanings, depending on culture: e.g. a tap on the side of the head can indicate completely opposite things—“stupidity” or “intelligence”—according to cultural context; the head gestures for “yes” and “no” used in the Balkans seem inverted to other Europeans; and so on.
Gestures can be witting and unwitting. The former are the manual signals that people produce spontaneously across cultures to indicate affective states and intentions—e.g. clenching the hand to convey anger; lifting the arm to cover the face for protection; and so on. Witting gestures span the entire range of semiosic properties: e.g. referring to a round object by moving the hands in opposite directions—one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise—is an example of iconic gesturing; pointing to something with the index finger or with a tilt of the head is, of course, an example of indexical gesturing; and the conventionalized hand movements people use in greeting, agreeing, negating, halting, insulting, etc. are instances of symbolic gesturing. Many semioticians and linguists consider gesture to be a more fundamental form of communication than vocal language. This would explain why gesture is the default mode of communication when one doesn’t speak the language of the people of a country one is visiting. For example, if the visitor needed to describe an automobile in that situation, s/he would typically use the hands to portray a steering wheel and the motion used to steer a car, accompanying this, perhaps, with a vocal sound imitative of a motor. This anecdotal scenario not only suggests that gesture is a more fundamental mode of communication, but also that its essentially iconic modality makes it a much more universal, and less culture-dependent, system of message-making.
Many linguists claim that gesture and speech are linked in human evolution. The use of the hands—the dominant limbs in the human species, given their physiological structure for grasping and pointing—was made possible when the human species evolved into one that walks upright. The liberation of the hands from the requirements of locomotion allowed early humans not only to make tools and to use fire deliberately, but also to use their hands for gesturing. The capacity to point out beings, objects, and events in the immediate environment, so as to convey their existence and location to others, conferred upon our early bipedal ancestors a new and powerful psychological control over their environment and over their own lives.
The transition from manual to vocal language is explained, typically, by theorists in terms of an imitation and substitution process by which gestural signs were transferred osmotically to the vocal apparatus. The version of gesture theory that has become a point of departure for all subsequent ones was actually formulated by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in the middle part of the eighteenth century. Rousseau became intrigued by the question of the origins of language while seeking to understand what he called the “noble savage.” Rousseau proposed that the cries of nature that early humans must have shared with the animals, and the gestures that they must have used simultaneously, led to the invention of vocal language. He explained the evolutionary transition in this way—when the accompanying gestures proved to be too cumbersome, their corresponding cries were used to replace them completely. However, Rousseau did not provide any scientific evidence to support his theory. In the early twentieth century, Richard Paget (1930) accepted Rousseau’s idea, refining it as follows. Gestural signs became vocal ones, Paget claimed, through vocal simulation: i.e. manual gestures were purportedly copied unconsciously by positions and movements of the lips and tongue, and the continual apposition of gestures and vocal movements led eventually to the replacement of the former by the latter. But again, Paget provided no evidence to support his explanation.
Such theories raise two rudimentary questions that they seem incapable of answering: (1) What made the transition from gestural to vocal signs attainable or even desirable? (2) Why has gesture survived as a communicative system? Actually, the most suggestive indirect evidence that gesture may in fact have been the evolutionary antecedent of vocal language is the very fact that it has survived and can satisfy all basic communicative needs. The psychological literature has documented, moreover, that children invariably pass through an initial stage of pointing and iconic gesturing before they develop language (Lieberman 1984). Incidentally, some fascinating experiments have shown that speakers who are requested not to use vocal speech to communicate with each other can easily create a gesture language within a very short period of time (Singleton, Morford, and Goldin-Meadow 1993, Morford, Singleton, and Goldin-Meadow 1995). This suggests rather strongly that gesture contains all the structural features that are needed to make verbal messages.
The findings of the linguist David McNeill (1992) show, much more precisely, how gesture is intrinsically interconnected with vocal language. After videotaping a large sample of people as they spoke, McNeill came to the inescapable conclusion that the gestures that accompany speech, which he called gesticulants, are hardly inconsequential to the act of communication. Gesticulants exhibit images that cannot be shown overtly in speech, as well as images of what the speaker is thinking about. This suggested to him that speech and gesture constitute a single integrated referential/communication system that allows a person to get the message across effectively.
McNeill proceeded to classify gesticulants into five main categories. First, there are iconic gesticulants, which, as their name suggests, bear a close resemblance to the referent or referential domain of an utterance: e.g. when describing a scene from a story in which a character bends a tree back to the ground, a speaker observed by McNeill appeared to grip something and pull it back. His gesture was, in effect, a visual icon of the action talked about, revealing both his memory image and his point of view (he could have taken the part of the tree instead).
Second, there are metaphoric gesticulants. These are also pictorial, but their content is abstract, rather than iconic. For example, McNeill observed a male speaker announcing that what he had just seen was a cartoon, simultaneously raising up his hands as if offering his listener a kind of object. He was obviously not referring to the cartoon itself, but to the genre of the cartoon. His gesture represented this genre as if it were an object, placing it into an act of offering to the listener. This type of gesticulant typically accompanies utterances that contain expressions such as presenting an idea, putting forth an idea, offering advice, and so on.
Third, there are beat gesticulants. These resemble the beating of musical tempo. The speaker’s hand moves along with the rhythmic pulsation of speech, in the form of a simple flick of the hand or fingers up and down, or back and forth. Beats are indexes, marking the introduction of new characters, summarizing the action, introducing new themes, etc. during the utterance.
Fourth, there are cohesive gesticulants. These serve to show how separate parts of an utterance are supposed to hold together. Beats emphasize sequentiality, cohesives globality. Cohesives can take iconic, metaphoric, or beat form. They unfold through a repetition of the same gesticulant form, movement, or location in the gesture space. It is the repetition itself that is meant to convey cohesiveness.
Fifth, there are deictic gesticulants. As mentioned in the previous chapter (§3.6), deixis is the term used by semioticians to designate all kinds of pointing or indicating signs. Deictic gesticulants are aimed not at an existing physical place, but at an abstract concept that had occurred earlier in the conversation. These reveal that we perceive concepts as having a physical location in space.
McNeill’s work gives us a good idea of how the gestural mode of representation intersects with the vocal one in normal discourse. As Frutiger (1989: 112) has also observed, accompanying gestures reveal an inner need to support what one is saying orally: “If on a beach, for example, we can hardly resist drawing with the finger on the smooth surface of the sand as a means of clarifying what we are talking about.”
McNeill’s gesticulant categories are actually subtypes of the more generic category of gesticulant known as an illustrator. Other categories are emblems, affect displays, regulators, and adaptors:
- Illustrators: As just discussed, these accompany and literally illustrate vocal utterances. Examples: circular hand movements when talking of a circle; moving hands far apart when talking of something large; moving both the head and hands in an upward direction when saying Let’s go up.
- Emblems: These directly translate words or phrases. Examples: the Okay sign, the Come here sign; the hitchhiking sign; waving; and many obscene gestures.
- Affect Displays: These communicate emotional meaning. Examples: the typical hand movements and facial expressions that accompany happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, contempt, disgust, etc.
- Regulators: These monitor, maintain, or control the speech of someone else. Examples: hand movements indicating Keep going, Slow down, What else happened?
- Adaptors: These are gesticulants that satisfy some need. Examples: scratching one’s head when puzzled; rubbing one’s forehead when worried; and so on.
Many societies have developed or adopted gesture codes for the use of hearing-or speech-impaired individuals. These are known generally as sign languages—the term sign being used as a synonym for gesture. These are languages in the real sense of the word, since they share many structural and communicative features with vocal languages. The spatial and orientational use of hand movements, as well as facial expressions and body movement, make up the grammar and lexicon of sign languages. In American Sign Language (ASL), for instance, the sign for “catch” involves one hand (in the role of agent) moving across the body (an action) to grasp the forefinger of the other hand (the patient). ASL signifiers are made by one or both hands, which assume distinctive shapes and movements. A number of manual communication systems use the sign vocabulary of ASL in combination with other hand movements to approximate the syntax of Standard English.
Sign languages are also used by hearing peoples for various purposes. One of the best-known examples is the sign language developed by the Plains peoples of North America as a means of communication between tribes with different vocal languages. The manual signs represent things in nature, ideas, emotions, and sensations. For example, the sign for a white person is made by drawing the fingers across the forehead, indicating a hat. Special signs exist also for each tribe and for particular rivers, mountains, and other natural features. The sensation of cold is indicated by a shivering motion of the hands in front of the body; and the same sign is used for winter and for year, because the Plains peoples count years in terms of winters. Slowly turning the hand, relaxed at the wrist, means vacillation, doubt, or possibility; a modification of this sign, with quicker movement, is the question sign. This sign language is so elaborate that a detailed conversation is possible using the gestures alone (Mallery 1972).
Throughout cultures, one comes across representations of the body—in painting, in narratives, etc.—which reveal that it is perceived typically as being imbued with moral, social, and aesthetic significance. In ancient Greece the body was glorified as a source of pleasure; in ancient Rome it was perceived as a source of moral corruption. As a consequence, the two cultures represented the body in different ways. The Christian Church has always played on the duality of the body as a temple and as an enemy of the spirit. The perception of the body as something morally significant is typical of tribal cultures too. As the anthropologist Helen Fisher (1992: 253-254) observes, even in the jungle of Amazonia Yanomamo men and women wear clothes for sexual modesty. A Yanomamo woman would feel as much discomfort and agony at removing her vaginal string belt as would a North American woman if one were to ask her to remove her underwear. Similarly, a Yanomamo man would feel just as much embarrassment at his penis accidentally falling out of its encasement as would a North American male caught literally “with his pants down.”
Clothing and decorating the body for social presentation are forms of representation. For example, the wearing of jewelry is typically representative of sexual or romantic meanings. When a young Zulu woman falls in love, she is expected to make a beaded necklace resembling a close-fitting collar with a flat panel attached, which she then gives to her boyfriend. Depending on the combination of colors and bead pattern, the necklace is a courtship text designed to convey a specific type of romantic message: e.g. a combination of pink and white beads in a certain pattern would convey the message You are poor, but I love you just the same (Dubin 1987:134).
The wearing of clothes constitutes a fundamental means of extending the meanings of the body. Like any human object or artifact, clothes are interpreted as signs: i.e. as signifiers standing for something else (personality, social status, etc.). At a biological level, clothes have a very important function indeed—they enhance our survivability considerably. They are, at this denotative level, human-made extensions of the body’s protective resources; i.e. they are additions to our protective bodily hair and skin thickness. As Werner Enninger (1992: 215) aptly points out, this is why clothing systems vary according to geography and topography: “The distribution of types of clothing in relation to different climatic zones and the variation in clothes worn with changes in weather conditions show their practical, protective function.” But as is the case in all human systems, clothes invariably take on a whole range of connotations in social settings. These are established on the basis of the various dress codes (from Old French dresser “to arrange, set up”) that inform people how to clothe themselves in social situations. In terms of the dimensionality principle, therefore, clothes denote bodily protection (i.e. they extend bodily protective functions), taking on specific connotative meanings in social settings in terms of a culture’s various dress codes:
Predictably, dress codes vary across cultures. To someone who knows nothing about Amish culture, the blue or charcoal Mutze of the Amish male is just a jacket. But to the Amish the blue Mutze signals that the wearer is between 16 and 35 years of age, the charcoal one that he is over 35. Similarly, to an outsider the Russian kalbak appears to be a brimless red hat. To a rural Russian, however, it means that the wearer is a medical doctor. It is interesting to note, too, that clothing texts, like other representational activities, can be used to lie about oneself: e.g. con artists and criminals can dress in three-piece suits to look trustworthy; a crook can dress like a police officer to gain a victim’s confidence, and so on. To discourage people from deceiving others through clothing, some societies have even enacted laws that prohibit misleading dressing and that define who can dress in certain ways. In ancient Rome, for instance, only aristocrats were allowed to wear purple-colored clothes; and in many religiously oriented cultures differentiated dress codes for males and females are regularly enforced.
For some semioticians and cultural historians, the history of clothing fashions is the history of a culture. Let us take, therefore, a rapid and highly selective trip through the maze of Western fashion history as a case-in-point. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, invaders from the north introduced fitted tunics and hoods into Western clothing styles. Shortly thereafter, the élite of the Byzantine Empire adopted Oriental traditions of dress, with no apparent concession to sexual attraction or to utility. After Charlemagne (742?-814 AD) became Holy Roman Emperor in 800, a relatively uniform style of dress appeared in Europe. Charlemagne’s own everyday attire consisted of an undertunic and an overtunic, with breeches cross-gartered to the knee. This introduced the “tunic style” to other European monarchs. Court ladies also started wearing long tunics, under supertunics hitched up to show the tunics beneath. A cloth veil concealed the hair. These garments made up the basic wardrobe of the European aristocracy throughout the Middle Ages.
In the 1100s the Crusades had a startling effect on fashion, as crusaders brought back luxurious Oriental fabrics and new styles. The Oriental long, trailing tunic became the main form of aristocratic dress in the 1300s and evolved into the doublet, which survived into the 1600s as the basic male outer garment. Its modern version is the waistcoat or vest. The period also produced an early form of the corset for women. Throughout the Middle Ages, long skirts reached to the floor to hide women’s ankles.
In the Renaissance, the development of new fabrics and materials brought about a desire for elaborate clothing styles. By the early 1600s, fashion had literally become the craze with lace edges, frills at the neck and sleeves, collars that eventually became the cravat and the necktie, and breeches for men. This period also saw the introduction of the wig for men. Light colors and fabrics characterized the 1700s, typified by the loose gown. Soft lace replaced the starched, formal ruffs of the previous century. With the French Revolution (1789-1799) came radical changes, as men began wearing trousers for the first time in six hundred years. No basic change in men’s clothing has taken place since. Women’s fashion reverted to what was deemed the “classical style,” a look featuring thin fabrics and bare arms—emphasizing a new sexual freedom for females.
Up until the nineteenth century fashion was, clearly, the privilege of the aristocracy. The Industrial Revolution, however, projected fashion for the masses into the realm of economic possibility. Since then fashion crazes for everyone have become an intrinsic feature of the social landscape. Outside the Western world, however, clothing styles continue to be anchored in religious and/or tribal traditions. Where non-Western cultures have come into conflict with Western ideas, traditional garments have often been displaced. Nevertheless, in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East many aspects of traditional dress have survived.
The broad range of connotations associated with dress codes are inextricably interconnected with other codes of the signifying order. Until the early 1950s, females in Western culture rarely wore pants. The expression “the one who wears the pants in the family” meant, denotatively and connotatively, the male. With the change in social role structures during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, women too began to wear pants regularly, sending out the new social messages that this entailed. The reverse shift in styles has never occurred. Except in special ritualistic circumstances—e.g. the wearing of a Scottish kilt—men have not worn skirts in modern-day Western cultures since the French Revolution. If they do, then we label the act “transvestitism,” with the particular kinds of negative connotations that this evokes.
During the 1950s, a new dress code based on age cropped up in Western society that mirrored an emerging social trend—the advent of an adolescent subculture. That was, in fact, the period when the clothes worn by the first rock’n roll musicians and adolescent media personages became the dress models for teenagers to emulate. With the entrenchment of teenage lifestyles from the mid-1960s onwards, a corresponding diversification of clothing styles ensued. For example, in the mid-1970s teens wishing to be members of so-called “punk groups” would have had to dye their hair with bizarre colors and cut it in unconventional ways; they would have had to wear unusual clothes and various kinds of props (e.g. safety pins stuck through their nostrils) to send out counter-culture messages. Although punk fashion started as a political statement by working class youths in England, by the time its symbolism was marketed to a larger segment of the teen subculture, it ended up being all things to all classes: e.g. the fascist insignia used by English punks lost its ideological overtones, becoming a “put-on” aimed at provoking adults of a middle-class, bourgeois mentality.
Clearly, like any code, fashion is interconnected with the other components of the signifying order. Discourse also frequently reflects its meanings. Here are some examples that are self-explanatory:
- dressed down for such a casual occasion.
- They dressed up and went to the prom.
- The plane doesn’t land for another hour, so keep your shirt on.
- The only thing those swindlers didn’t take was the shirt off my back.
- You would understand my decision if you put yourself in my shoes.
- The shoe is on the other foot.
- Wait for the other shoe to drop.
The human being is the only animal that does not “go nude,” so to speak, without triggering off some form of social repercussion (unless, of course, the social ambiance is that of a nudist camp). Indeed, nudity can only be interpreted culturally. We are all born “nude,” but we soon learn that nudity has negative connotations. Moreover, what is considered “exposable” of the body will vary significantly from culture to culture, even though the covering of genitalia seems, for the most part, to cross cultural boundaries.
To see how powerful the meanings of nudity are, consider the “art” of strip-teasing (male and female). A semiotician would ask: What does it represent? Why do we attend (or desire to attend) performances whose sole purpose is the removal of clothing to reveal the genitals and, in the case of female strip-teasing, also the breasts? The semiotician would, of course, seek answers to these questions in the domain of the signifying order. To start with, in order to understand nudity, one must consider it in comparison with its paradigmatic counterpart, clothing.
Strip-teasing is an act of alluring “clothing-removal.” In an audience setting it has, first and foremost, something of a pagan ritualistic quality to it. The dark atmosphere, the routines leading up to the act, and the predictability of the performance itself, with its bodily gyrations and mimetic emphases on sexual activities, are suggestive of sexual theater—i.e. of a hedonistic performance worshipping carnality and sexuality. There is no motive for being at such performances, really, other than to indulge our fascination with the sexuality that the clothing conceals. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) suggested, by masquerading the sexual body society has guaranteed, paradoxically, that people will desire to look at it through representations and performances that range from nude drawings to strip-teasing. Covering the body is an act of modesty. But clothing has in effect imbued it with a kind of secret desirability below the covered surface. So, at a strip-tease performance, the shedding of clothes does several symbolic things at once: it removes our imposed moral restrictions on sexuality; it reveals those covered bodily parts that have become so desirable; it engages us in carnal ritualizing.
Visual artists have also always had a fascination with the nude figure. The ancient Greek and Roman nude statues of male warriors, Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) powerful David sculpture, and Rodin’s (1840-1917) nude sculpture The Thinker are all suggestive of the potency of the male body. It is this suggestiveness that enhances male sexuality, not the size of the penis (as is popularly believed). On a “weakling” body, male genitals are hardly ever perceived as sexual, no matter what size they are. On the other side of this semiotic paradigm, the female nude has typically been portrayed as soft, sumptuous, and submissive—something to be gazed at. It is, in fact, this system of depiction that feminist social critics reacted to in the 1980s and 1990s. All of this makes it rather evident that nudity is much more than bare flesh, semiotically speaking.
The modern-day fascination with erotic materials, magazines, and videos is a contemporary testament to our age-old fascination with nudity as a signifying phenomenon. Those who see danger in such materials, and seem to be prepared to become everyone else’s “moral guardians” by censoring them, are probably more overwhelmed by the connotative power of nudity than most others. Censorship is more dangerous than sexual depictions. Censorship-minded people attempt to control the form and contents of representational activities, by claiming to have the best interests of society at heart. In actual fact, they are simply rationalizing their fear of sexuality. Gazing at the human body depicted in sexual poses or activities reveals, in our opinion, the signifying value that nudity and sexuality have in our culture, no more and no less. Only when such depictions are restrained does a perilous fascination with gazing surface. In the world of representational behavior, nudity is indeed a very powerful signifying phenomenon.
Aware of this, some have even gone so far as to advocate the practice of not wearing clothes. The proponents of nudism maintain that clothing should be abandoned when not absolutely necessitated by the rigors of the weather, as clothing serves to focus erotic attention on the body, thereby exciting an unhealthy interest in sex. The shame customarily associated with nakedness in much of modern society results, according to nudists, from centuries of cultural conditioning against complete exposure of the body in public. Nudism, by correcting in its practitioners this false sense of shame, aims to enhance their self-assurance and furnish them with a new appreciation of the essential beauty and dignity of the human body. Whatever the case, the interplay between clothing and nudity as signifying systems cannot be ignored. They are intertwined and interconnected with the entire signifying order of a culture.
Dancing is common to all peoples and cultures. It is an art form based on bodily kinesthemes and gestures connected to each other textually through pattern and rhythm, and usually performed to music. Dance serves three main functions in human life:
- It can be a form of aesthetic communication, expressing: emotions, moods, or ideas, or telling a story. Classical Western ballet is an example of aesthetic dancing.
- It can be a part of ritual, serving religious communal functions. In Java, for example, spirit-possession dances remain a part of village life. Sub-Saharan African societies engage in masked dances to exorcise spirits.
- It can be a form of recreation, serving various psychological and social needs, or simply as an experience that is pleasurable in itself.
Evolutionary psychologists see dancing as a residue of movement for survival. (It is harder to attack moving prey.) This animal mechanism purportedly explains why it is virtually impossible to remain motionless for any protracted period of time. When we are forced to do so by the situation, our body reacts against it. There is, of course, some truth to this theory. During the public performance of a lengthy slow movement of a classical piano sonata, for example, it is almost impossible for audience members to keep perfectly still or not to cough or make some other kind of vocal sound. These involuntary reactions result in all likelihood from a latent need for movement. But why this need was converted in early cultural contexts into dancing defies explanation in biological terms. The reason behind the origin of dance as art remains a mystery. Throughout the world dance, like all art, serves a spiritual need—the need to seek meaning in life. Art somehow provides assurance beyond rational comprehension that there is a design and purpose to life beyond physical survival.
The best known form of aesthetic dancing is ballet, which originated in the courts of Italy and France during the Renaissance, becoming primarily a professional discipline shortly thereafter. The basis of ballet is a turned-out position of the legs and feet with corresponding arm positions. Certain relationships of the arms, legs, head, and torso produce an aesthetic, harmonious effect. A ballet may be choreographed either to music especially composed for it or to music already existing. The plot of a ballet is called its libretto or scenario. Ballet choreographers may use narratives from literature, drama, and films. Plotless ballets, on the other hand, are intended to create a mood, interpret a musical composition, or celebrate dancing for its own sake.
Early precursors to ballets were the lavish court dances of Renaissance Italy. Professional ballet dancers first appeared in the mid-1600s, with the art form being developed extensively during the reign of Louis XIV of France (1643–1715). Louis established the Académie Royale de Danse, a professional organization for dancing masters. At first dancers were men; professional female dancers appeared in 1681. During the second half of the eighteenth century the Paris Opéra was still dominated by male dancers. By the end of the century, and by the time of the romantic nineteenth century, ballet became dominated by women.
In the 1920s and 1930s popular dance forms, such as jazz and modern dance, enriched ballet’s form and stylistic range. Two great American ballet companies were founded in New York City in the 1940s: the American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet. Since the mid-twentieth century, ballet companies have been founded in many cities throughout the United States and Canada. Beginning in 1956, Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Saint Petersburg Ballet began performing in the West.
The universality of dance is evidence of its importance to human life. People frequent discos, take dance lessons, and enroll their children in ballet school because they feel that dancing satisfies some basic need of human life. As the American philosopher Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985) suggested, beautiful movements in dance have no specific purpose other than to engender in people the sense of beauty and of the sublime—both of which seem to be needed by human beings to satisfy an intrinsic need. As the saying goes, art is “food for the soul.”