Mittelberg Plenary

Irene Mittelberg, RWTH Aachen University

Gestures as Image Schemas and Force Gestalts
Towards a Dynamic-systems Account of Enacted Schematicity

Embodied image schemas are central to experientialist accounts of meaning-making. Research from several disciplines has evidenced their pervasiveness in motivating form and meaning in both literal and figurative expressions across diverse semiotic systems and art forms (e.g., Gibbs 2005; Hampe 2005; Johnson 1987; Lakoff 1987; Talmy 1988). This talk aims to highlight structural similarities between dynamic image schemas and force schemas, on the one hand, and hand shapes and gestural movements, on the other. Such flexible correspondences between conceptual and gestural schematicity are assumed to partly stem from experiential bases shared by incrementally internalized conceptual structures and the repeated gestural (re-)enacting of bodily actions, as well as more abstract semantic primitives (Lakoff 1987) and experiential gestalts (Gibbs 2005). Indeed, gestures typically consist of evanescent, metonymically reduced hand configurations, motion onsets or movement traces that minimally suggest, for instance, a PATH, the idea of CONTAINMENT, an IN-OUT spatial relation, or the momentary loss of emotional BALANCE. So, while physical in nature, gestures often emerge as rather schematic gestalts, which, as such, have the capacity to vividly convey essential semantic and pragmatic aspects of high relevance to the speaker. It is further argued that gesturally instantiated image schemas and force dynamics are inherently meaningful processes involving, for instance, metonymy, metaphor, and frames (e.g., Cienki 2013; Mittelberg in press).

In this talk, I first briefly discuss previous work on how image schemas, force gestalts, and mimetic schemas may manifest in hand gestures and body postures (e.g., Cienki 2013; Mittelberg 2010; Wehling 2017; Zlatev 2014). Drawing on Gibbs’ (2005) dynamic systems account of image schemas, I then introduce an array of tendencies in gestural image schema enactments (Mittelberg 2018): body-inherent/body-impacting (body as image-schematic structure; forces acting upon the body); environment-oriented (material culture including spatial structures), and interlocutor-oriented (conversational interaction). Adopting a dynamic systems perspective (e.g., Thompson and Varela 2001) thus puts the focus on how through operating in gesture image schemas and force gestalts may function as cognitive-semiotic organizing principles that underpin a) the physical and cognitive self-regulation of speakers; b) how they interact with the environment and make use of gesture space while talking; and c) intersubjective instances of resonance and understanding between interlocutors, or between an artwork and its beholder (Mittelberg 2013). Examples of these patterns are enriched by motion-capture data stemming from American English and German multimodal discourse, showing how numeric kinetic data allow one to measure the temporal and spatial dimensions of gestural articulations and to visualize movement traces. In this way, motion-capture technology may provide new, three-dimensional insights into the dynamic, gestalt-like nature of bodily enacted schematicity.

Cienki, A. J. 2013. Mimetic schemas and image schemas in cognitive linguistics and gesture studies. Review of Cognitive Linguistics 11(2): 417-432.

Gibbs, R. W., Jr. 2005. The psychological status of image schemas. In B. Hampe (ed.), 113-135.

Hampe, B. (ed.). 2005. From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Johnson, M. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reasoning. Chicago UP.

Lakoff, G. 1987. Woman, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago UP.

Mittelberg, I. 2010. Geometric and image-schematic patterns in gesture space. In V. Evans & P. A. Chilton (eds.), Language, Cognition, and Space: The State of the Art and New Directions, 351-385. London: Equinox.

Mittelberg, I. 2013. Balancing acts: Image schemas and force dynamics as experiential essence in pictures by Paul Klee and their gestural enactments. In M. Borkent et al. (eds.), Language and the Creative Mind, 325-346. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Mittelberg, I. 2018. Gestures as image schemas and force gestalts: A dynamic systems approach augmented with motion-capture data analyses. Cognitive Semiotics, DOI:10.1515/cogsem-2018-2002.

Mittelberg, I. In press. Peirce’s Universal Categories: On their potential for gesture theory and multimodal analysis. Semiotica.

Talmy, L. 1988. Force dynamics in language and cognition. Cognitive Science 12: 49-100.

Thompson, E. & F. Varela. 2001. Radical embodiment: Neural dynamics and consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Science 5. 418-425.

Wehling, E. 2017. Discourse management gestures. Gesture 16(2): 245-276.

Zlatev, J. 2014. Image schemas, mimetic schemas, and children’s gestures. Cognitive Semiotics 7(1): 3-29.