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Auerbach Lecture | 15.11.2021 | 18 Uhr

Thomas Widlok (African Studies, Cologne): Pointing to the Future: The Power of Symbolic and Deictic Gestures


Gestures have for a long time been underrated as being ornamental accompaniments of speech but more recently they are also been considered as embodied social acts in their own right. The starting point of this lecture is therefore that gestures can be considered a form of minimal politics since they directly impact on social relationships. Moreover, I argue that many gestures have an in-built connection to the future. As speech acts they can encourage or challenge aspirations and apprehensions. They go beyond imaginaries of the future by literally being part of future making practices. Revisiting comparative field research data on pointing gestures, my analysis relates back to the distinction between symbolic and deictic gestures as discussed in anthropological linguistics and linguistic anthropology. While the minimal politics of egalitarian societies (examples are given from hunter-gatherers in Africa) are relying heavily on deictic gestures, there seems to be dominant preoccupation with symbolization in hierarchical contexts, including the dealings of the state apparatus and in technocratic media systems of today. This leads me to propose that embodied deictic gestures can (re)produce an open future while symbolic gestures tend to restrict options for the future.

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