THR Web Features   /   November 15, 2021

Talk with the Hand!

On the expressive art of chirology.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Chirogram from John Bulwer's Chirologia, 1644. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

I joy (dear friend) to see thy Palm display
A new Chirosophie, which hidden lay
In Nature’s Hieroglyphique grasp’d, the grand
And express Pantotype of Speech, the Hand.

            Dedicatory poem to John Bulwer’s Chirologia (1644)

After a year of teaching almost exclusively on Zoom, I made my triumphant return to in-person instruction in August. Except it wasn’t so triumphant. Throughout the previous academic year, I had assumed that teaching in-person—even in masks—was far, far easier than the education-by-video conferencing that I was exhausting myself to provide. Within five minutes of my first masked in-person class, however, I discovered how very wrong that assumption had been. Now, to be clear, I am not complaining about my institution’s masking policy. Masking makes the meeting of relative strangers in a college classroom possible. Still, I hadn’t perceived how hard it is to read the responses of one’s audience when the most expressive part of the face is hidden. Were my students grinning at me or glowering? Were they yawning under there? Halfway through my first in-person session, I was certain that I had lost my charisma during my year on the screen. A few days later, I reported these difficulties to my spouse, a fellow professor and a veteran of masked teaching, and was greeted with a knowing smile. “Yeah,” she said, “the rest of the body has to compensate.” She pointed me, in particular, to the hands.

So I began to watch the hands of my students, friends, and children when they were engaged in masked conversation, and I observed that the most effective communicators delivered the most histrionic performances. They threw their hands up to signify exaltation and despair; they thrust their hands forward in supplication; they threw their hands down at their sides in grief and resignation; they cut their hands across the air in defiance. You might miss a few muffled words, but you couldn’t miss the point of what they were saying. I had known people with very expressive digits before. Now, though, I saw that the pandemic had given new urgency to the language of the hand.

In the midst of this observation period, I chanced upon a curious seventeenth-century book on the subject of “chirology”—that is, the discourse or language of the “chiros,” or hand—while searching for another early modern book in a digital archive. Its boisterous, seventy-two word title begins as follows: Chirologia, or, The naturall language of the hand composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof : whereunto is added Chironomia, or, The art of manuall rhetoricke (before rambling on for forty-four more words). Confronted by such grandiloquence, one cannot help but chuckle—as I did at first sight—and one’s amusement only increases when in the opening sentences the author, physician and natural philosopher John Bulwer, confidently asserts that he has solved the riddle of Babel. Unlike the language of the tongue, Bulwer contends, manual rhetoric is a common human code, possessing the “universal character of Reason” and being “generally understood and known by all Nations.” Thus one could, on this account, travel anywhere in the world and expect to converse freely and immediately by hand alone.

Bulwer is due our respect as a pioneering thinker about the education of the deaf—the subject of a subsequent book—yet the Chirologia has glaring problems, beginning with the unresolved question as to why one would need a book on “manual rhetoric” in the first place if the language of the hand is already “generally understood and known by all Nations.” Coming upon Chirologia under present circumstances, however, I found myself sympathetic to Bulwer’s attempt to make of the hands a “Substitute and Vicegerent of the Tongue.” Aren’t we all engaging in chirology now? So I found myself reading the book intermittently throughout the semester, delighting in both its oddity and the light it throws upon current efforts to use our hands, among other body parts, to make up for the obscured communications of the mouth.

A great part of the pleasure of reading Chirologia arises, ironically, from Bulwer’s copious use of the words that his techniques are designed to supplant. The book catalogues scores of the hand’s shapes and motions, each gesture assigned a number, given a Latin title, illustrated in various charts, proven through classical, biblical, or medical citations, and defined using lists of verbal synonyms that read like entries in a thesaurus. Consider, for example, his gesture #4, Admiror: “To throw up the hands to heaven is an expression of admiration, amazement, and astonishment, used also by those who flatter and wonderfully praise; and have others in high regard, or extol another’s speech or action.” Or #19, Suffragor, “To hold up the hand is a natural token of approbation, consent, election, and of giving suffrage.” Or #3, Ploro: “To wring the hands is a natural expression of excessive grief, used by those who condole, bewail, and lament.” Better still is #7, Explodo, “To clap the fist often on the left palm, is a natural expression used by those who mock, chide, brawl, and insult, reproach, rebuke, and explode, or drive out with noise, commonly us’d by the vulgar in their bickerings, as being the Scold’s saunting dialect, and the loud natural Rhetorique of those who declaim at Billingsgate” [a ward of London known for the vulgar idioms of its fishmongers].

Entries also discuss holding out the hands “hollow in the manner of a dish” to beg (#24, Mendico), slapping a hand on the thigh in anger or grief (#55, Indignatione timeo), holding an outstretched hand over another in a threatening manner (#34, Castigo), and shaking hands to show “friendship, peaceful love, benevolence, salutation, entertainment, and bidding welcome; reconciliation, congratulation, giving thanks, valediction, and well-wishing” (#57, Reconcilio). A separate list of Dactylogia chronicles various finger-focused gestures, including Extollo (#4): “To hold up both the thumbs is an expression importing a transcendency of praise.”

As that list suggests, many of Bulwer’s motions remain a part of our manual vocabulary. If gestures like holding one’s hands up to heaven are not universal exactly, then, they are nonetheless enduring. And while Bulwer’s manual rhetoric hasn’t solved the problem of masked communication, I can report that reading Chirologia and studying its charts has made me more sensitive to the gestures of my interlocutors. I can now even name certain maneuvers that I observe among my students, including the classic Sollicite cogito (#48)—“To rue or scratch the head with the hand” signifying “anguish or trouble of mind.” Or Conscienter affirmo (#52)—“To lay the hand open unto our heart”—, and Impatentia prodo (#47)—“To apply the hand passionately unto the head” as “a sign of anguish, sorrow, grief, impatiencie, and lamentation, used also by those who accuse or justify themselves.” (Unfortunately, I’ve also seen Dolorem noto (#54)—holding the “hands upon the loins, sides or hip,” expressing “some pain in those regions of the body.”) And as one teaching during a pandemic, I am grateful that we’ve long since abandoned certain thinking poses (at least in public), including Inventione laboro (Dactylogia #1), “The finger in the mouth gnawn (that is, gnawed) and suckt … a gesture of serious and deep meditation, repentance, envy, anger, and threatened revenge.” 

But my most significant discovery while perusing Chirologia concerns the sixth gesture among the Dactylogia, Indico. Bulwer defines it as follows: “The fore-finger put forth, the rest contracted to a fist [i.e. to point] is an expression of command and direction; a gesture of the Hand most demonstrative.” Pointing is such a basic element of communication that most of us take it for granted. If any gesture has a claim to being a universal expression, this one would be it.

Indeed, in a series of highly influential books, the psychologist Michael Tomasello has made such a claim. In The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Tomasello asserts that “the simple act of pointing to an object for someone else for the sole purpose of sharing attention to it is a uniquely human communicative behavior.” By pointing (and, of course, looking where others point), humans create what Tomasello has memorably dubbed the “joint attentional scene.” The paradigmatic such “scene” features a parent and a nine- to twelve-month-old, in which the parent holds up or points to an object and the infant becomes aware of not only the object but the fact of the parent’s attention to and intentions toward it. Pointing thus occasions an “intersubjective” event, which the child learns to reproduce for the purpose of directing the parent’s attention. For Tomasello, pointing is not just “most demonstrative” but most collaborative.

Which brings us back to where we began. While reading Bulwer, I realized I had gone a year of teaching without putting forth my forefinger and contracting the other four fingers into a fist. There is no point in pointing on Zoom. You can direct your index finger only at the camera, which seems accusatory, or at things that belong in your own workspace, which calls attention to the fact that you are not occupying the same room as your interlocutors. A Zoom call is, at best, an approximation of a “joint attentional scene,” its participants having to work against the fact that their devices have been designed to allow them to flip easily between multiple information streams. As Tomasello observes, the joint attentional scene is by its very nature an exercise in reducing stimuli—the interaction between the people in the scene being promoted by the fact that their attention is directed at a limited number of objects, perhaps only one. Indico is powerful because it narrows the scene.

The restrictions of in-person teaching, I am learning, are its paradoxical strength. While I can’t always be certain of what is happening under my students’ masks, I can track the movements of their eyes. I can point them to the board, to the book, to some image projected on the clunky common screen in the front of the classroom. I can invite them to look at what I am looking at, and I can offer them the chance to direct my attention to what they notice there or to direct my attention to some other object in our common view. The pandemic has without a doubt demonstrated the great strides that digital technology has made both in interface design and infrastructure. Yet it has also offered an opportunity to appreciate anew what we can achieve simply by gathering in one place and making use of the familiar tools attached to our persons. The hand directs attention, renews affection, and speaks our grief. So too does the extended hand (#14, Protego) invite others to enter the scene.