Pragmatic affinity in political gesture
Research on manual gesture has been preoccupied with unconventionalized and conventionalized extremes. Homesigns developed spontaneously by deaf children unexposed to standardized sign languages have been used as a window onto more general socio-cognitive processes of semiotic systemization. Spontaneous, idiosyncratic gesticulation has been contrasted with shared, highly regimented “emblematic” or “quotable” gestures to reveal a cline of conventionalization. I direct attention here to the vast and relatively understudied middle ground in which manual gesture shows evidence of only partial conventionalization. Using a corpus of televised political debate data from a US presidential campaign cycle, I note, first, that there is nothing as coherent and systematized as a “register” of political gesture here. Focusing on gesture variation in precision-grip and index-finger-extended gestures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I identify form-functional “pragmatic affinities” among gestures that have not crystallized into stable types or classes. Dwelling on the specificities of gesture variation, with its mercurial forms and incomplete conventionalization, may allow us to appreciate the processual complexities of gestural enregisterment in social and historical life.
Keywords: conventionalization, precision grip, pointing, pragmatics, indexicality, register, politics
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