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Business Ethics: A European Review

Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

The moral significance


of gestures
Rene ten Bos
Department of Management Sciences, Philosophy and Organizational Theory, Radboud University, Nijmegen,
The Netherlands

The concept of the gesture is explored in relationship with its moral signicance rather than, for example, its
aesthetic signicance. It is argued that the concept can be used in order to make clear how morality relates to
the body. This is not to suggest that gestures can be neatly dened. On the contrary, they always seem to be
ambivalent and somewhat nebular. However, it will be shown that some of their signicance might well be
related to popular concepts such as transparency, authenticity, integrity and responsibility. In order to
make this clear, the role of some particular gestures in politics and organizational life, most notably
apology and trust, will be discussed throughout the paper.

Introduction acknowledgement of the wrongfulness that has been


caused. It is therefore safe to say that under the
One of the strange effects of the current nancial present, crisis-ridden circumstances, a CEO who
crisis is the widespread attention to the nature of the thinks that he or she can get away with excuses will
apology. CEOs all over the world have profusely only aggravate the moral outrage. The least that
apologized for the wrongdoings of their companies. people want to hear, given the seriousness of the
If one takes a positive angle on this, one might argue situation, is an apology. One might argue that the
that this shows how much business people have apology is, in comparison with the excuse, more
become aware of their social responsibilities. If one authentic and hence more appropriate when things
opts for a more cynical approach, one might think do really matter. The other side of the coin is that
that CEO apologies are just so many instances of the apology is also more vulnerable to critique and
window dressing. Whether they are sincerely in- scepticism. Even when it goes wrong, it carries more
tended or not has always been a somewhat moot weight than the excuse.
issue, not only in daily practice but also in the Apologies also occur in areas other than business.
academic literature. One might think here of a thief who stole a gem
What is an apology? One way to approach this from an older lady and, remorsefully, returns it to
question is to make a distinction between excuses her, or of a statesman who apologized for his
and apologies (Gill 2000: 25). In both cases, we are nations wrongdoings in the past (slavery, genocide,
dealing with so-called remedial activities. Excuses etc.). In all these and other cases, the issue of
differ from apologies, however, because they involve authenticity seems to play an all-important role as
a denial of responsibility. If a persons action causes well. Politicians, for example, routinely apologize
problems for someone else but if it has been for wrongdoings caused by them or by other people
performed unwittingly or unintentionally, excuses for whose acts they are held responsible (Cunning-
are generally considered to be appropriate. An ham 1999). But why do we feel that Willy Brandts
apology, on the other hand, always implies an genuection before the Warshaw Ghetto Memorial
acceptance of personal responsibility and an explicit in 1970 was much more convincing than the deep

doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8608.2011.01631.x r 2011 The Author


Business Ethics: A European Review r 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road,
280 Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St, Malden, MA 02148, USA
Business Ethics: A European Review
Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

sorrow Tony Blair expressed in 2006 over the slave situations and contexts in which apologies were
trade in which Britain had been involved? We issued in the light of his categorical ideal. There is no
surmise it must be related to this somewhat nebulous doubt that this generates several insights into what
concept of authenticity. Goffman (1971: 113114) apologies can do under specic circumstances. But
was one of the rst commentators to stress the after reading Smiths book, the reader remains a bit
importance of authenticity not only in politics but perplexed about what apologies are. Smith refuses to
also in daily affairs. Apologies, he famously argued, dene them and apparently is resigned to the idea
will not work if they are solely offered as a means of that they are somewhat enigmatic. More precisely,
impression management. However, his suggestion he refers to apologies as enigmatic gestures (2008:
that authenticity and efciency assume each other as 25). He thus assumes that apologies are gestures, but
far as apologies are concerned has been taken issue he does not explain what we should understand by
with. Lazare (2005), for example, argued that even this. Even though Smiths book is to be commended
insincere apologies can serve important social for many reasons, he assumes rather than elucidates
functions. Yet, Lazares position has in its turn the moral relevance of his subject.
been criticized by Smith (2008: 93), who argues that The goal of this article is, as the title indicates, to
apologies should never be approached from the lay bare the moral signicance of gestures and there-
perspective of instrumentality. Does this mean that fore of apologies and, as we will see, of other kinds
instrumentalism is a kind of inauthenticity? And of gestures as well. The gestures moral signicance
that a lack of instrumentalism engenders authenti- can be related, it is suggested, to three different but
city? interconnected elements. First, it will be pointed out
Smith analyses the apology from an entirely that the concept of the gesture allows us to under-
prescriptive standpoint. He claims to be not so stand the physicality of morality. When a person
much interested in what an apology is as in what an issues an apology, he or she normally uses language
apology should be in a given situation. It is, after all, and the use of language is, as we will see later on, a
the context and the situation that determine what physical experience. Moreover, morality oftentimes
makes an apology efcient and authentic. In order makes itself manifest as a bodily feeling. The voice
to sustain his prescriptive position, Smith has to nd of our conscience is not a voice but rather a nagging
a formula that allows him or his readers to judge feeling in the belly. Brandts genuection did much
whether in a given situation an apology fails or not. more than words could do. Second, the gesture is all
The notion of a categorical apology, which he about self-transformation and about the transfor-
denes as a benchmark for apologetic meaning, is mation of the other. In this sense, it nearly always
what should perform the job (2008: 142). To be evokes an element of initiation. This is perhaps also
categorical, an apology must meet three criteria: why sincere or authentic apologies are so difcult to
issue: people oftentimes shy away from the idea that
(a) It must be issued by a person who is proximately
they should be initiated into, let us say, a different
responsible for unjustied harm. The intensity of
stage of life. Third, the gesture is anti-teleological
an apology and its moral signicance tend to
in the sense that it does not serve or does not have
evaporate as soon as intermediaries issue it.
a goal. To put it somewhat differently, the gesture
(b) The person who apologizes should show that he
belies the idea of a predetermined result. It certainly
or she is knowledgeable about the kind of harm
produces effects, but these effects cannot be cal-
that was caused. He or she should also clearly
culated or predicted. It will be argued that gestures
indicate what kind of moral principle was
allow for a certain openness that is essential to all
violated by inicting this particular harm.
morality, including the morality of our business
(c) The apology should be the expression of serious
leaders. Yet, it may be the openness of the gesture
regret. Here again, there is a demand to be
that belies organizational rationality.
authentic.
The paper consists of two sections. In the rst
It is Smiths hope that he will be able to elucidate section, a brief survey of the philosophical literature
the meaning of his subject by discussing all sorts of on gesture will be provided. This survey should then

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Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

function as an overture for the second section, which What is being spoken relates to what is being
will discuss the aforementioned three gestural intended by the person who speaks. By means of its
elements physicality, initiation, openness. The complexity, its variety, its curved senses, its empha-
conclusion is not that gestures are always clear, sis and its restraint, the speaker of a particular
commendable or good. The conclusion is rather that language is always able to resort to the inexhaus-
they allow us to understand how complicated tible panoply of willing-to-say (Guerin 1995: 13). It
morality has become in a world that increasingly is exactly the richness of language that can under-
focuses on results and excellence. mine the credibility of what is said. A business
manager who offers apologies in too eloquent a style
will only cause irritation. A business manager who
Gestures: between nature and culture apologizes in a non-verbal way does not run this
risk. People see that she is really concerned about
1 what happened.
Michel Guerin (1995: 73), a professor of aesthetics in For Guerin, language is always dressed up.
Aix-en-Provence, France, has complained about the Gestures, however, are naked. Language is sump-
impense du geste in Western philosophy: it has by tuous, but frugality is the hallmark of gesture.
and large not been an object of serious thought. This Language allows for volubility and eloquence, the
is, Guerin argues, a sad situation for philosophers gesture is restricted to a domain of necessity.
should take an interest in sense and if something Whereas you can add more and more words to the
makes sense, creates sense, is sense, then it would be conversation that you are having with a person, the
the gesture. Indeed, there is a syntagmatic redun- gesture is necessarily condensed. Hence, at face
dancy in the gesture that makes it replete with value, there seems to be a contrast between the
sense. misery of the gesture and the exuberance of
To start unravelling just some of the meanings language and it is exactly this contrast that has
involved, we may start by saying that gestures are led people to think that language is superior to
simply what people do with hands or other parts of gesture (Guerin 1995: 14). In other words, gesture
the body. People who are lacking words, who is often understood as an Ersatz-language, a kind
cannot nd words, or who cannot nd the right of substitute language that is of necessity the
words oftentimes resort to gestures to make lesser language, not more than a signal, the efcacy
themselves understood. In this sense, the gesture is of which depends on two criteria: right timing
just a poor substitute or supplement of spoken and good reception. Gestures are always considered
language. As such, it points to something that the to be simple. But if this is the case, how can it be
speaker cannot express in words, but that she/he that gestures pop up when language fails? Again,
nevertheless deems to be vital. This vitality will be why do people resort to gestures when they cannot
diluted as soon as the gesture becomes too complex. convince each other, when they cannot nd the
The same effect can be seen if it takes too much right words, when they are desperately looking for
time. The idea of a slow gesture seems to be words?
contradictory. The gesture always seems to be in a One can make a distinction between expressing
kind of hurry. This also implies that a gesturing oneself by means of gestures or talking with
individual quickly has to assure himself/herself of gestures. In the rst case, gesture is a substitution
the correct reception of what he/she intended to for language but in the second case gesture is what
signify. One of the problems that he/she faces is that accompanies language. As a paralinguistic (rather
his/her gesture is somehow difcult to rectify. A than sublinguistic) phenomenon, the gesture might
gesture of helplessness is something that an audience reinforce, exaggerate, suppress, underline or even
does not forget easily. This is also what makes the set the tone. It renders language expressive in the
gesture different from language or metalanguage: in sense that it provides listeners with certain bits of
and by language, one can easily correct what one has information about whatever it is that the speaker
said. Linguistic meaning can always amend itself. wants to convey. The gesture gives a new kind of

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modality to what is being enunciated and this Emile Alain, the more it irritates itself (quoted in:
modality is capable of inuencing the overall sense. Guerin 1995: 15). The important thing to bear in
During the process, it is always the body that mind here is that gestures apparently belong to a
allows the speaker to provide the abstract content non-reective world. This implies that gestures that
with an affective silhouette. As such, gestures are made intentionally, on purpose or strategically
furnish interpretations of what is being said with a will lose their expressive quality. This is probably
holistic imagery. They enrich and simultaneously why Brandt is much more convincing than Blair,
simplify the content. But whatever they do, they are whose apology was carefully prepared and directed.
always powerful revealers of personalities, interests, The more one intends to make sense with gestures,
even passions. Ultimately, it is only the gesture that the more one risks losing sense. Guerin emphasizes
ensures that the chain of speaking is not more than the essential inchoateness and purposelessness of
just an abstract ow of air. By means of gestures, gestures. This is, of course, contestable. There is no
you show that it is you who speaks and not merely doubt that many gestures can be made on purpose.
some body. What the gesture shows, in other words, From the ancient Romans to contemporary politi-
is that it makes a difference who is speaking. Hence, cians such as Tony Blair or Barack Obama, there
there is a utilitarian and a pragmatic dimension has been considerable knowledge on how to use
about the gesture, but also an expressive and an gestures effectively. Yet, Guerin and others (Flusser
affective one. It embodies language; it opens it up to 1994, Agamben 2001) argue that a gesture that is not
the physical. made on purpose is almost by denition more
For many Western philosophers, it has always meaningful and expressive than a gesture that is
been difcult to accept that language is fundamen- deliberately made. Turning back now to a business
tally related to the body. They argue that we can context, there is, for example, a huge difference
understand the meaning of certain concepts without between an articial smile of a company employee
paying attention to physical elements. For example, who did a course on customer friendliness and a
the word horse means horse no matter how it is persons real or spontaneous smile. Here, too, the
expressed (loudly, softly, with fear, with enthusiasm argument seems to invoke a certain understanding
and so on). The relation between language and of authenticity that might be lost as soon as gestures
body has therefore been denied (Cavavero 2005). are produced articially.
However, if we claim that gesture and not only It is interesting to dwell a little more on the issue
conceptual signicance is substantial to what lan- of smiling. In his book on laughter, Henri Bergson
guage might mean, then we also claim that we (1906: 3233) provides us with yet another reason
should rethink the relation between body and why we might feel uncomfortable with articial
language. Can we, when we are listening to the gestures. He argues that gestures and laughs and
apologies of business people all over the world, smiles are gestures too cannot be imitated or
really separate signication from comportment? In repeated. More precisely, one simply cannot imitate
other words, can signication completely align itself another persons smile or friendliness without
with a pure, disembodied form of language? Who- becoming laughable. The paradox here is that a
ever looks at Brandts famous Kniefall in Warsaw persons real smile or real friendliness is nothing
on YouTube will understand that meaning is not to smile about perhaps one can say that one should
necessarily a denial of the body. smile back but phoney smiles or phoney friendli-
That gestures can convey meaning renders the ness have a certain comical twist about them.
very idea that a pure, non-physical language exists, Bergson explains that involuntary gestures do not
an idea that goes back to Plato, impossible. This is belong to life anymore but infuse it with an
also what makes the gesture, being a holistic automatism that is in fact just imitating life. It is
phenomenon, unanalysable or rather: to analyse it this imitation of life that he deems to be an essential
or to think about it simply means that one has to ingredient of what is comical (1906: 149).
leave the gestural universe. The more the gesture The idea that gestures belong to life itself and are
thinks about itself, writes the French philosopher not imitating it is important to Guerin as well (1995:

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Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

16). He claims that gestures basically attest to an technicality is probably the single most important
animal-like vouloir-dire (a willing-to-say) that in reason why people cling so strongly to them. Exactly
turn, on a very basic level, coincides with a vouloir- because they are so closely linked to nature, they are
vivre (a willing-to-live). The gesture is therefore seen so difcult to give up. Yet, at the same time, they
as having a very strong link with life as such. To fear gestures for their ambivalence. One should
make it susceptible to an aesthetic regimen implies never think that Brandts genuection was condoned
that its essentially non-reexive nature, its secret link by all of his contemporaries. On the contrary, many
with life itself, will of necessity be undermined. people believed that statesmen are never to bend
Nevertheless, there is always this link with techni- their knees. When in 1995, in the wake of what
que: there is a technical use of gesture in sign became known as the Brent Spar affair, Cor
language, in lectures, in public talks, in theatre, and Herkstroter, by then the CEO of Shell, apologized
even at the checkout in the supermarket. Gesture is to the general public for the companys technocratic
also a bodily technique that gives information about arrogance, he was vehemently criticized by share-
who someone is or rather about what this particular holders and other nancial watchdogs (ten Bos
person is (the condition in which she nds herself: 1997).
her role, her function, her state of despair, her
happiness and so on). Gestures allow for a certain
kind of homogenization that requires cultural habits 2.
such as taste, skill and memory, which all help to We saw that gestures, being somewhere between
foster some sort of communality. This is why the nature and culture, are intimately connected to the
gesture is deemed to be politically relevant as well: it body. Does this also hold for linguistic gestures such
helps to foster communality (Agamben 2001: 63). as apologies? Most apologies are, after all, linguistic.
Guerin, who has been our major guide so far, Brandts genuection is a remarkable and important
argues therefore that the gesture has a double exception to the rule. Its uniqueness, however, lies in
mandate: it is natural and it is cultural. When he its silence. Oftentimes, when harm has been inicted,
claims, for example, that the gesture pregures people expect words. This is what must have been on
technique or skill, he wants us to believe that it is Herkstroters or Blairs minds as well. After Brandt,
somewhere between nature and culture. It is not most of us do not want politicians or business
difcult to see how this might apply, for example, leaders to routinely bend their knees when they want
to discussions about leadership. When a political to repair harm.
leader or a CEO gives a lecture, the audience usually So far in this section, we have taken gestures
expects her to be more than just the words she literally, that is, as movements of the body that are
utters. It is as if the body tells something about the somehow connected to what is being said. But when
veracity of what is being said. Non-verbal behaviour we discuss apologies, we do seem to venture into the
has an enormous impact on the credibility of domain of language. The gesture can be understood
leaders. In this sense, the leader should come across as a stylistic element of a particular spoken or
as someone who is simultaneously natural and written text as well. There are, of course, many ways
culturally skilled. We will come back to the issue in which people produce texts. A great variety of
of leadership. textual expressions from apologies to poetry can
Summarizing, we can say that even though the be seen as gestural. What are we to make of this
gesture is non-reexive, it is a technique, something and how is this related to embodiment? We will
that is acquired, something that shows cultural argue that a text, even a piece of poetry, gains in
skills. Le geste demarre toute culture . . .: all culture gestural quality if it has a transparent relationship
starts with the gesture. With it, we enter a zone of with the body.
indifference between nature and culture. Gestures Transparency is an important aspect of gesture.
are the pedestal of all culture. That they are Smiths three requirements for what he understands
somewhere between nature and culture, between as his ideal apology proximity, knowledgeability
initiation and imitation, between symbolism and and authenticity seem to invoke a certain kind of

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Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

transparency. The relation of the person who condone. Why would one resort to poetic language
apologizes for the harm that has been inicted in order to understand what transparency or
should be clear not only to the victim but also, if integrity can be all about? Is it not enough to simply
necessary, to the general public. We already saw that dene both as a sort of openness? (Berggren &
it is difcult to think of gestures that are unclear. Bernshteyn 2007, Florini 2007). Can one seriously
This is basically why they are so difcult to rectify. contest the idea that openness is good? Well, things
A political leader who made an obscene gesture will are always more complicated than they seem. The
be held accountable for this for a long time. It sticks, Italian philosopher Mario Perniola (2003) took issue
as it were, in the publics eye. Apologies will with the idea that transparency and openness equal
oftentimes not work. It is very difcult to correct good. He points out that transparency is not simply
wrong gestures by better gestures. Tony Hayward, about openness, directness or the possibility to see
former CEO of BP, nally apologized for the through things or people. In medieval philosophy
catastrophic oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but and theology, transparency was always related to
the general public did not believe him any more after reections about transparent materials such as glass
a long series of gestures intended to disguise the and crystal. This allows one to think of the concept
real facts about the disaster (ten Bos and Dunn in entirely different ways than openness: transpar-
2011). ency is about grace, fragility, solidity, distortion
The Canadian philosopher and poet, Jan Zwicky, and discretion. We surmise that these are all words
allows us to gain a better idea of what transparency that somehow seem to t in perfectly well in the
might be all about. In her discussion of the lyrical discussions about apology. Where Smith claims that
which she denes as the attempt to grasp the whole apologies are enigmatic gestures; Perniola points
in one single gesture (Zwicky 1992: 143) she uses out that transparency as such is enigmatic. Indeed,
many concepts that have become popular too in the effort to ignore the enigma, that is to say, the
organizational life: not only transparency but also effort to think transparency without secrecy or
integrity, authenticity or trust. Zwicky shows how discretion is, according to Perniola, nothing less
much these concepts are intertwined with the than a new form of militancy that aims to make
gestural. We will see below that this implies that everything trivial, uncomplicated, practical and
these concepts should be related to the body as well. open (2003: 102).
If the link with the body is absent, then all these People in organizations constantly experience
concepts will function as empty shells which what this militancy is all about. Auditing processes
cynics argue is the precise role they are expected to become more and more pervasive. The underlying
play in both organizational and political life (see idea is that the performance of every single member
also: Ungericht and Weiskopf 2006). of the organization should be rendered transparent.
Utterances or concepts, Zwicky claims, can be Michael Power (1998: 2) warns against the totalitar-
gestures exactly because they can make things ian aspects of this kind of transparency:
transparent. To achieve this transparency, an
utterance should render what is on the other side
of the glass easier to understand, accept, respond to, Could one imagine a society, or even a group of
or love. This is what she subsequently relates to a people, where nothing was trusted and where
certain understanding of integrity an utterance explicit checking and monitoring were more or
less constant? Even Poppers ideal community of
becomes a gesture if it facilitates the integrity of our
scientists engaged in daily conjectures and refuta-
being in the world and if it puries vision (1992:
tions could not carry such attitudes back to their
46). Zwicky adds that the lyrical image is a gesture family lives or even to the cashier at the laboratory
of great particularity, like the single droplet that canteen. Pockets of doubt and checking may be
draws our attention to the stillness of the pool created and institutionalized but surely not as an
(1992: 128). entire principle of social organization? The more
There is no doubt that this is language that not one thinks about it, the more apparent it is that the
many people in organizational settings would imperative never trust, always check could not be

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Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

a universalizable principle of social order: constant Our relationship with the world, if there would be
vigilance is somehow autodestructive. any, can only be non-systematic. It cannot therefore
be managed or programmed. The refusal to subject
Perniola urges us to think with more subtlety about the world to forms of scientic or managerial
concepts such as transparency or integrity. The control stands, if we are to believe Zwicky, as the
sceptic might argue that such a subtlety can only be hallmark of integrity. A concept that Zwicky
achieved in the lyrical world depicted by Zwicky frequently uses in relationship with gesture and
rather than in the real world of organization and lyrics is resonance. Without resonance, she claims,
politics. Like Perniola, Zwicky is very well aware of there is no meaning (1992: 438). This entails that
the materiality of transparency: water, glass, snow, meaning can never be restricted to what words
rock and crystal play all-important roles in her denote or to what words may signify thanks to the
book. She argues that we have to think with these linguistic system in which they appear. This is why
metaphors if we are to understand what the someone like Wittgenstein could easily claim that to
transparency of a gesture might be all about. So know the meaning of a word is not exactly the same
then, what does it mean if a gesture is like a droplet as being able to explain it. A word, a poem, a
of water that makes us aware of the stillness of a sentence they can mean something to a person
pool? even though she may not be able to offer an
It might be about nothing less than the truth explanation of what the gist of this meaning is. To
provided that we do not understand this as mean is to make a gesture, Zwicky comments (1992:
correspondence with some bit of the world or as 439). We can use language just to escape logocentr-
systematic intra-linguistic coherence (1992: 464). If ism and systematicity. But it needs to be a language
the gesture makes available some kind of truth, then that is grounded in a silent harkening to the world;
this truth should be thought of in terms of integrity, that is, the only language that resonates with the
that is, in terms of being a whole with the world. world, which hears it and communicates with it. It is
This allows us to make more sense of the earlier a gestural language and it is, Zwicky argues, the
discussed idea that the gesture belongs to life as human response to presence (1992: 442).
such. Guerin and Zwicky seem to agree that the A gestural openness to what things are presup-
gesture is at least in this sense superior to language, poses the presence of a responsible and contempla-
which stands accused of alienating human beings tive mind. Zwicky hints at a poetic sense of
from the world. What makes us superior to the responsibility, almost in a literal sense of the word,
natural world language is also what leaves us that is to say, as a way of responding to the world.
with an irredeemable nostalgia: a feeling of not To put it more precisely, it is a way of responding to
being in touch, of having lost some kind of what Heidegger (2003: 293) once referred to as the
connection or solidarity, of exclusion even (Cava- unprotectedness (Schutzlossein) of the world. To be
vero 2005: 113). Only when language gets lyrical, able to respond in this way is what integrity might be
when it tries to grasp the whole in one single gesture, all about.
is it possible to have communion with the world.
The price one pays for this is that one gets a
language that is subhuman or superhuman, a 3
language that is no longer worthy of its name; in No doubt, the ideas presented in this section may be
fact, not a language at all but indeed a gesture. too abstract and too theoretical for people who take
Zwicky suggests that a gesture towards the world is an interest in organizations and organizational
what puts our reasonability into question exactly ethics. Nonetheless, we gained some understandings
because it contests normal language. If one opts about what transparency and integrity can be. What
for community with life or with the world, one would, for example, integrity in a corporate world
should give up the idea that we can understand be if it is not about a certain kind of attunement to
both from a systematic point of view. The will to or a concern about the state of the world? For
systematicity amounts therefore to a lack of integrity. Zwicky (1992: 440), the possibility of integrity lies

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Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

exactly in an acknowledgement of the preciousness and so on may, as concepts, be very difcult to link
and losability of what is. The gesture is what opens to the body. But even when we speak in very
us up to this possibility. Zwickys analysis of lyrical abstract terms, we do something physical. Nobody is
gesture has at least in two senses a very strong capable of taking that experience away from us. You
nostalgic touch about it. In the rst place, the can tell men, women or children to be silent, but you
gesture oftentimes sheds light on the vulnerability of cannot deny that there was a time when their mouth
special things, persons or creatures all worthy of our opened up. The physical experience of speaking
attention. In the second place, the gesture allows for will constantly rebel against everything that tries to
a meaning that means in a way that most people in deny it.
our society and not only people working in How physical language can be is something that is
organizations do not understand anymore. The experienced, for example, by all those who are the
subtle attentiveness required does not seem to be rst to raise their voice against an injustice some-
something that many people are up to nowadays. It where in the world or by those who have to address
is as if they have alienated themselves from the for the rst time in their lives a large audience. It is
worthiness of the events that are taking place. If it is as if the entire body trembles and the heart becomes
only the gesture that allows us to bestow a meaning heavier with each word that is uttered. It is I who
on these events that is not banal, then the all- speaks and the awareness of that is mediated by the
important question will be: are we still capable of the entire nervous system. Oftentimes, the speaker
gesture? Have we not lost its power? senses that her voice becomes strange, as if it comes
from elsewhere, from a space that allows for no
escape. The body seems to have become an echoing
Lost gestures well that has been sealed off once and for all. To talk
out of this nervousness is what makes speaking a
1 highly physical process. The speaker performs with
In the previous section, we saw how our discussion her body and constantly experiences its presence.
about the gesture opened up new perspectives on Whoever has to speak up the truth in making a
concepts that have become fashionable in orga- confession, in swearing an oath, but also in a
nizational discourse. One of these concepts was conversation with the partner at home may sense
integrity. We saw that integrity amounts to a how uncontrollable forces start to take over the
communion with the world that belies system and body.
management. We also saw that integrity, thus The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2010:
understood, needs the gestural. The intimate rela- 77) deplores what he sees as the lack of reection
tionship of the gesture with the body is what allows about the physical aspects of language. For exam-
for a communion with, and an openness to, the ple, oath swearing has always been understood as a
world. Now, the physicality of the gesture might still profoundly religious act. In fact, it is a gesture.
appear as a somewhat loose idea when we are People swearing an oath transform themselves, and
talking about lyrical gestures. Our main concern enter a different space where unknown and un-
throughout the paper has been the embodiment of predictable forces reign supreme. These forces are
morality. It is, of course, not difcult to understand not religious, Agamben argues. What people experi-
that physical gestures are embodied. In what sense, ence when they swear to speak the truth or when
however, are lyrical gestures embodied? And what they swear allegiance to each other is, in the rst
does this mean for organizations that use or place, that they are language speakers. The experi-
experiment with some of the concepts that we have ence that one speaks, the experimentum linguae, is
discussed? also an experience during which people become
The experience that we all have when we speak (or slowly aware that all claims of sovereignty are
write) language is not only intellectual but also ridiculous. If one speaks up in front of a huge
physical. Admittedly, the concepts that we use audience, one stakes nothing less than ones own life
transparency, authenticity, responsibility, integrity (2010: 86). As such, the experience of speaking is a

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profoundly ethical experience, one that may allow etiquette and codication. Spontaneous rather than
for a new kind of communality that is not grounded codied gestures were increasingly considered to be
in the idea that people speak the same language more authentic and more universal than normal
everywhere, but rather in the fact that they can and language (Pethes 2000, Knowlson 2006). The
do speak (Agamben 2007: 10). inevitable paradox here is, of course, that sponta-
This line of reasoning assumes that ethics involves neity itself may become codied: the more people
the willingness to risk or stake ones own life, start to argue that the body is more natural than
something that becomes clear when a person raises anything else, the more this body becomes subjected
her voice. Language becomes physical and hence to a new regime, a new discipline that tells us to be
gestural. Now, one may wonder how this sheds light spontaneous or natural. This also lies at the heart of
on our previous discussion about apologies. Do we the problems that organizations have when they
ever have the feeling that top managers who think about highly valued concepts such as integ-
apologize for the harm done by their corporations rity and transparency. They need to codify and
stake their own lives? What, in fact, do we expect to control. Yet, it may only be spontaneity that
when people working in corporations do apologize? allows for the embodiment of whatever is being
If the apology carries with it the kind of experience denoted by these concepts. But how can one control
about which Agamben muses, an experience that spontaneity?
tells us that the person has changed his or her life, There is probably no thinker who went further
then it might be possible that the apology creates a than Antonin Artaud when it comes to thinking of
new situation, perhaps even a new kind of com- the relationship between spontaneity and gesture.
munality. Unfortunately, it is rare that the general His Theatre of the Cruel was a place where only
public thinks that such a profound experience gestures counted. The pure gesture Artaud also
undergirds the apology. Too often, its gesture speaks of pure theatre was a gesture beyond
remains shallow because people do not feel that codication. Artauds theatre is not about language,
something substantial has changed. It is perhaps let alone about psychology, but about poses that are
interesting here to point out that the word sorry much better expressed by gestures than by words.
has an etymological link with pain or wound The point of these gestures is that they are to
(sore). Hardly ever do we have the feeling that top produce affects rather than that they are representa-
managers who say sorry do experience any pain tions of them. This is why Derrida (2001: 306) could
or wound at all. They cling to their implacable argue that Artaud is not about subconsciousness at
sovereignty. all, something that has haunted the interpretation of
the mans work and thought for a long time. If
Artaud is about anything, then it is about lucidity
2 and consciousness.
Many discussions about gestures are, as we have This is not to say that words do not occur in
seen, about whether they are authentic or not. Artauds theatre but that their function has drasti-
Above, we saw that both Guerin and Zwicky seem cally changed. As Derrida (2001: 302) argues, [t]hey
to agree that the gesture has something unreexive: will once more become gestures; and the logical and
it does not need to think or to be rendered explicit in discursive intentions which speech ordinarily uses
order to be effective. But we also noticed that it in order to ensure its rational transparency, and in
was precisely the gesture that has been subjected to order to purloin its body in the direction of
all sorts of techniques and codications. Indeed, meaning, will be reduced or subordinated. Here, it
during the era of baroque and mannerism, gestures becomes clear what might be meant when we say
were primarily regarded as a matter of technique. that words become gestures again. Derrida argues
Spontaneity became crucial only after the 18th that words can be linked to the body. The word
century. Inuenced by romanticism, commentators should become esh again and thus should the focus
started to think that communication can only be be on its sonority, intonation or intensity. In fact,
optimized if it remains unspoilt by technique, what one should do is try to enact the eve of the

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origin of language, when what is being articulated is describes it, torn asunder into two spheres, two
no longer a shout but not yet discourse, when realms: one of pure interiority, one of pure
concept and sound, signied and signier, or exteriority, without mediation, without a physiog-
pneumatical and grammatical are not yet separated. nomic gesture to unite them. Hence, we have poetry
Artauds theatre is not about constructing a silence without rhythm, music without soul, prose without
or a muteness, but rather about constructing a stage poetry, politics without beauty, leadership without
whose clamor has not yet been pacied into words. heart and, indeed, organizations that keep on using
It is all about restoring a world in which gesture and hollow phrases that refuse to become embodied.
speech are not yet separated by the logic of Artaud repeatedly points out that the gesture
representation (Derrida 2001: 30). means itself and not something else. It is not, as was
The ethical question raised in this article is maintained by Flusser (1994), an expression of an
whether organizations are in any way capable of inner state of mind (Stimmung). The gesture is just
this kind of embodiment? Are they, in other words, itself and does not point to something else. As such,
still capable of gesture in this sense? What we have it does not have consequences in the sense that it does
suggested in the discussion on the problem of the not have an end or does not have a purpose. To be
apology is that organizations may have lost this more precise: the gesture produces affects, but it can
capacity because they have lost a sense of embodi- never control the consequences of this production.
ment. The world of organization and management is The poet cannot control how readers will interpret
a part of a broader culture in which words function her words or actions, and the same holds for
as empty shells that are no longer attached to what painters, philosophers, political and organizational
people feel or sense. If words are not linked to this leaders. This lack of control is what we mean when
pre-rational reality, if they have lost any touch with we say that a person puts her life at stake by means
the realm of the body, how are we supposed to of gesturing or voice raising.
believe the person issuing apologies, swearing an Gesture and morality are closely linked to each
oath of allegiance or speaking out the truth? other. Both have no goals in the sense that they
Max Kommerell, a German literary theorist, is cannot be thought of in terms of means and ends
credited with having argued that our society, or (Agamben 2001: 60). This is why we feel so disgusted
more precisely, its bourgeoisie has lost its gestures by business managers when they claim that business
(Agamben 1999, 2001, Fleming 2000). It is not ethics is good for prot. We sense that morality
difcult to link Kommerells ideas to Artaud. The cannot be subjected in this way to a regimen of
crisis he diagnoses, a crisis he describes as the loss of means and ends. Morality is not efcient. Like the
gestures, consists in the fact that the spirit does not gesture, it is what it is and it is open to many
enter life anymore. What can possibly be meant by consequences. It is, as Agamben would argue, pure
that? Gestures are so important because they mediality, something that has nothing to say in
mediate, as we have seen, between thought and life, terms of propositions and which nevertheless makes
between culture and nature, between interiority and sense. This is why philosophers from Wittgenstein
exteriority, between the immaterial and the material to Agamben always harboured misgivings about
and, nally, between words and body. All the the possibility of moral language. The more one
thinkers discussed in this paper are obsessed by speaks about ethics and morality, the more we may
exactly the problem of how we are to think the zones surmise that the language used is not embodied at
of indifference between the elements of these pairs. all. That morality does not t into means-end schemes,
Only then might it be possible to navigate some sort that it does not have any calculable consequences, is
of path between them. Somehow, our culture has what makes it to resist all codication.
lost the ability to relate thought and life, the inner
and the outer, the soul and the body. The gesture,
Kommerell argued, is a language of interiority in 3
the body and without the possibility of such a We will end with one more example: trust. Here
language our society is, as Fleming (2000: 541) again, we have a concept that is widely debated in

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Volume 20 Number 3 July 2011

organizational discourse. Yet, no one seems to They do not only allow us to think the body when
understand that trust is, if anything, a gesture. If we are talking about morality, they also help us to
you would trust a 10-year-old child to run an errand, understand that in many senses morality belies
then you have to accept the possible consequences: it organization and management. Organizational mor-
might lose its money, it might get lost, it might get al discourse has never been grounded in the body.
caught up in a ght and so on. Of course, you may It never had an eye for the gestural. It never
fear these consequences and decide to follow the understood that morality goes beyond words, codes
child and try to be in control of events. This is what or legislation. In this sense, it is part and parcel of
organizations always do when they are talking about culture that has lost its gestures and therefore fears
trust: employees are, as we have seen, routinely nothing more than its own morality.
followed by audits, appraisals or performance
measurements. It is also what politicians do when
they make contracts with public institutions or
Acknowledgements
companies.
Everyone talks about trust but forgets that it is
Thanks are due to Boris ten Bos, Peter Case,
gestural. We have seen that this means a lot of
Campbell Jones, two anonymous reviewers and,
things. It means, for example, that trust cannot be
especially, Mollie Painter-Morland.
codied, that it cannot become a managerial project,
that it requires a certain openness to the world that
we have tried to link to integrity. Trust is what
transforms the body as well: it may make it at ease, References
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