Towards a General Theory of Gestures


Vilém Flusser, Gestures, trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

‘Towards a General Theory of Gestures’ pp.161-176


Gesture can be seen as a kind of movement.

What separates gestures defined in this way from other movements is their epistemological overdetermination.

When I lift my arm, I can explain the movement perfectly well as the result of a force vector affecting the arm from the outside.

The arm movement involves physiological, psychological, cultural, economic, and other factors in equal measure for example.


Yet any of these kinds of explanation leaves a residual dissatisfaction (unless one indulges in vitalism, psychologism, culturalism, economism, or simiar ideologies) because they all bypass the heart of the phenomenon.

This dissatisfaction arises from my knowledge that I lifted my arm because I wanted to. Of course, I also know that my arm movement was determined, in fact, overdetermined, as the various explanations show.

But explanations of this type (which in fact no longer explain, but “explain away”) can’t be seen as satisfying either. I know I made a free decision to lift my arm, and for this reason it is not the motives for this decision that are determining but rather the fact that I would not have lifted it if I had not wanted to. This negative side of my knowledge renders all objective explanations of the arm movement, even the dialectical ones, unsatisfying.

To this extent, the concept of “gesture” maybe defined as a movement that expresses a freedom. The gesture, as the movement it is, is in fact determined, as are all other movements, and in this sense completely explainable. But what makes it unique is that, untouched by any of this, it expresses a subjectivity that we are forced to call freedom. Accordingly, the competence of a general theory of gestures would be the study and ordering of acts of expressions of freedom.


For when I observe someone else’s arm movement, I cannot be sure of deciphering his innermost, his freedom, directly. Freedom, rather, possesses the strange capacity to hide itself in the gesture that expresses it. Freedom has the capacity to lie.

The definition can be reformulated: gesture is a movement through which a freedom is expressed, a freedom to hide from or reveal to others the one who gesticulates.


Taking that which motivates it as a criterion, gesture can be divided into two types: (1) gestures in which a human body moves and (2) gestures in which something else connected to a human body moves.


One might be inclined to say that when a gesture is technically informed, then it is no longer free (and so is no longer a gesture). But this is a naive error. For what makes a movement a gesture is not that it is free but that a freedom is “somehow” expressed in it. And “somehow” means “by means of some technology.”

The technological application of a theory of gestures would not touch on the fact that a freedom expresses itself in the gesture but on how it expresses itself. Nevertheless such an application would probably have far-reaching consequences for active being-in-the-world, for it would permit a gesticulating person to be theoretically aware of his gestures and so to draw back and away from them. Such a “formal” transcendence would surely have practical consequences. One would act differently.


We are probably in a revolutionary situation (although we cannot get an overview and therefore cannot say with certainty whether it is “objectively” revolutionary). This, our feeling of being in a revolution, manifests itself as, among other things, a sense of having to reorient ourselves to be able to act at all, as a sense of needing to develop new kinds of theories. The suggestion of a general theory of gestures came from such feelings: of gestures, because they concern the concrete phenomenon of our active being-in-the-world, and of revolution, because a revolution is always, in the end, about freedom.

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