First, the study of gestures recommends itself as ethnographic method. To unravel even apparently simple "pointing" gestures requires cognitive and socio-cultural insight: about what entities exist to be pointed at, about how to reconstruct referents from indicated locations, even about why an interactant points at all (as opposed to using some other referential modality). Indeed, gestures-- along with the words that they complement-- are fleeting but unusually accessible cognitive exhibits, playing out with the body the actions, referential and otherwise, that constitute discourse. Moreover, insofar as our aim is to understand not just the cognitive "content" of talk but the way "interactional text" (Silverstein 1992) is the characteristic medium of social life, the evident link between gesturing and doing should attract our attention to gesture all the more.
Second, an adequate understanding of even supposedly primeval pointing gestures requires surprisingly complex conceptual tools. My metaphor for these conceptual tools has been the idea of "gesture spaces." I have distinguished a local space which is relevantly anchored (that has, for example, cardinal directions attached, independent of the actual entities that may populate it), from interactional space whose orientation is irrelevant or given solely by the positions of interactants with respect to one another, i.e., which may be in principle free of cardinal orientation. Entities in both spaces can be indexically signaled with both gestures and other deictics.
Narrated spaces (i.e., the spaces of narrated events seen from some narrating perspective) are laminated over these first-order spaces, substituting for the here-and-now a narratable there-and-then. Narrated entities can in turn be denoted by indexical devices, including "pointing" gestures, whose referents must be iconically mapped from the one laminate onto another.
A narrated space can be anchored on a discursively established origo and laminated over local space so as to inherit the latter's cardinal orientation, thereby allowing referents to be located by their indicated positions, presupposably, as when relative narrated positions are (a) known to interlocutors or (b) recoverable by inference (for instance, the motion of the capsizing boat). On the other hand, what is narrated may itself be (narrated) interactional space, established discursively and providing an autonomous locus of reanimated narrated interactions.
Perhaps most important, there is a central ethnographic moral to the study of gesture. All of these "gesture spaces," as my last examples have shown, can be complex constructions from knowledge that is at once geographic and social. Their lamination both enables and relies upon conceptual links that go well beyond any unproblematic spatial givenness. At the same time, the immediacy of the space that interactants share offers a useful vehicle for externalizing, onto the body and its surround, calculations of place and spatial relationships that might otherwise be difficult both to conceptualize and to communicate.
In my own lamentably dizzying transpositions between two continents, I have invited you to explore the cognitive underpinnings of a subdomain of spatial knowledge, using the remarkably non-straightforward phenomenon of pointing as empirical focus. Both Zinacantecs and GY speaking residents of Hopevale inscribe ethnography on geography. Space itself, whether represented in and on the body or simply lived in, has an indelible social and historical quality not captured by either topology or topography. Gesture captures this social quality of the very space it uses as its vehicle or medium; it also captures, indirectly, the historical evolution of (social) spaces.
In Guugu Yimithirr country, knowledge of land traditionally involved orientational precision. As ties to land have faded in importance, such precision and knowledge have also declined. Recent new legal possibilities for land rights have fostered a resurgence of interest in characteristic local practices of reckoning space, which calibrate directionally anchored spaces with socially populated conceptual universes. It remains to be seen whether young Hopevale people will continue to develop the exquisitely oriented mental maps of such social spaces.
In Zinacantan, local models of space-- similarly though perhaps less insistently anchored in cardinal directions-- have been exported to distant universes, both social and spatial. The effect is contradictory, as such a process brings closer what was heretofore not only distant but dangerous. According to Gossen (1974) writing about the Zinacantecs' closest Tzotzil neighbors the Chamulans,
"[m]ost basic to Chamula spatial orientation is the belief that they live at the center of the earth . . . Consequently, they view their home municipio as the only truly safe and virtuous place on earth. As social and physical distances increase, danger lurks more threateningly."
Transposing distant spaces onto local space thus effects a certain domestication of the distant and dangerous, sometimes by little more than an apparent waving of the hands.
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