Sheets-Johnstone Plenary

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, University of Oregon

The Silence of Movement:
A Beginning Empirical-Phenomenological Exposition of the Powers of a Corporeal Semiotics

The creative power and the rejuvenating power of movement are not commonly recognized much less celebrated. Only when, through accident, illness, or violence, the ability to move is suddenly gone, or impeded, or less than coordinated do we commonly recognize the foundational gift of movement to the most everyday aspects of everyday life, let alone to sign language and to determining whether someone is alive. When we take time to reflect upon real-life, real-time experiences of movement—not transliterating it into action, behavior, or even gestures—we have the possibility of realizing the creative power of movement, namely, the power of movement to create its own distinct qualitative dynamics, not only in the art of dance, but in the falling of a leaf and the crashing of a wave. We have the possibility of realizing the rejuvenating power of movement in equal measure when we take time to reflect upon real-life, real-time experiences of movement, movement that, in addition to spanning multiple forms of play, includes jogging, t’ai chi, and more. In short, movement has the power to awaken us in both an aesthetic and rejuvenative sense. Moreover movement has a formidable additional power, a power that makes us ontologically beholden to movement, namely, the power to awaken the sheer feeling of feeling alive—and further, to awaken us perceptually to the sheer aliveness of that which moves voluntarily. With recognition of that capacity, we have the possibility of deepening our appreciation of movement as both the source of agency and the cornerstone of our felt lives, felt in terms of our being moved to move, hence our felt lives in both an affective and tactile-kinesthetic sense.

The keynote sets forth each of these power dimensions of movement, beginning with the ontological power of movement to generate aliveness, both feelings of aliveness and perceptions of aliveness. In doing so, it shows that the kinetic silence of movement has formidable powers. In particular, observations of a film critic, a poet, a professor of political history, and a medical doctor attest to the fact that that kinetic silence is replete with meanings. These meanings in turn testify to a movement-anchored corporeal semiotics that resounds not merely functionally but experientially in animate forms of life. It does so consistently and directly in kinesthesia, the ever-present sense modality by which we experience the qualitative dynamics of movement and synergies of meaningful movement. Phylogenetic and ontogenetic perspectives attest to those dynamics and synergies. So also does Aristotle’s description of movement as a sensu communis. Because a movement-anchored corporeal semiotics discovers and describes what is existentially meaningful in the lives of animate organisms, such a semiotics is the foundation of a cognitive semiotics. It is so in a number of ways, most significantly in terms of thinking in movement and of cognition itself.