David Herman

North Carolina State University

Audio | Handout

Points, Spaces, and Places: Functions of Gesture in North Carolina Storytelling

Using videotaped data, this paper explores how narrative analysis can benefit from study of the gestural as well as verbal productions of storytellers. Defining gesture broadly as “that range of bodily actions that are, more or less, generally regarded as part of a person’s willing expression” (Kendon 2000: 47), the paper focuses on functions of speech-accompanying gestures used in narrative discourse. More specifically, I examine ways in which storytellers use deictic gestures or “points” (Cassell and McNeill 1993; Haviland 2000; Kendon 1990; McNeill 1992, 2000) to refer to situations, objects, and incidents; these discourse referents are located in the multiple sets of spacetime coordinates underlying narrative speech events, which involve sequentially organized representations of sequences of occurrences (Chatman 1978; Herman 2002; Prince 1982). Depending on how they are embedded in a larger ecology of talk, pointing gestures may thus refer to the present time and place of the telling or to one or more time-frames being told about over the course of the narrative. My paper examines how points contribute to verbal-gestural gestalts used to manage transitions between such time-frames in narrative contexts.

Further, I align my approach with recent research on the very notion of “place” as a parameter for sociolinguistic, ethnographic, and discourse-analytic inquiry (Johnstone forthcoming). Study of storytellers’ pointing gestures reveals microinteractional processes by which communicative spaces are reconfigured as places-with-a-history, i.e. spacetime environments with which stories are more or less inextricably interlinked (cf. Johnstone 1990). Hence, to understand how narrative participants interweave words and gestures to engage in moment-by-moment constructions of place, theorists need to supplement “a conception of place as physical location with a phenomenological perspective on place” (Johnstone forthcoming)

The data-set consists of five stories told by three North Carolina storytellers, two from the western region of the state and one from Hyde County, located in the eastern coastal region. Two of the stories are told “on location,” i.e., in the locale where the events being recounted are represented as having occurred prior to the time of the current speech event. The other three stories are told “off-site”; in these cases, the narrative speech event occurs in an environment spatially as well temporally distinct from that in which the told-about incidents are represented as having occurred. I examine structural differences between these contrasting storytelling situations—for example, how they necessitate different strategies for prompting “deictic shifts” from the here and now of the current interaction to the there and then in which narrated events must be located (Herman 2001; Segal 1995; Zubin and Hewitt 1995). I also examine differences in how individual tellers exploit pointing gestures within the communicative framework afforded by these two broad types of narratives, i.e., on-location and off-site stories.

Overall my account suggests that, in narrative contexts, events recounted do not simply precede the act of telling, but are in part constructed through the sociosemiotic resources (including gestural-verbal gestalts) on which tellers and their interlocutors collaboratively draw to effectuate the narrative. In the case of narratives about events preceding the time-frame of the current interaction, understanding of the past is accomplished socially in material settings that encompass bodily movements classifiable as gestures, rather than being imparted, in the form of purely ideational content, by storytellers alone (cf. Goodwin and Goodwin 2001).

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