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The ‘language’ of the body

In antiquity, gesture and facial expressions were not thought simply to refer to language, but to the underlying emotions or psychic states (Quintilian, Orator’s education 11.3.66). It is all the more surprising that in the case of pantomime, ancient accounts often emphasise the close correspondence between gestures and words, for instance when a spectator exclaims that he hears what is being performed silently (Lucian, On dance 63). Pantomime’s visuality is referred to in terms that have long been appropriated by rhetoric (e.g. enargeia, sapheneia). On a more general level, Libanius points out that in his day, pantomime is a substitute for education in the liberal arts which is accessible only to few (Speech 64.112). Rather than bypassing language, pantomime is measured by language as a standard of successful communication, and its primary function is described as diffusing the contents of literary culture.

Why did ancient appreciations of pantomime not rather endeavor to emancipate it from the models of spoken language and text? The idea of a visual medium that is independent from language and gives instead immediate access to thoughts and emotions would not have been unparalleled in antiquity. Apart from physiognomics and theories of gesture, this idea can also be found in the discourse on painting (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.10.5) or in the Neoplatonic understanding of divine images and of hieroglyphs (Plotinus, Enneads 5.8). But one reason why pantomime could hardly be dissociated from language lies in its history as a genre: presumably it is a development of the hyporchema, a dance that accompanies and illustrates a song on a mythological subject. Another explanation for the paradigmatic role of language has been seen in the effort of some authors to establish language and texts as superior to visual culture, especially in the competitive environment of the Second Sophistic.

One of my aims is to show, though, that the emphasis on language draws on long established models from the discourse on art. Since the earliest systematizations of technai, the vocabulary for rhetoric and the figurative arts is interdependent (see e.g. N. Koch in Rhetorik 2005, on schema). Moreover, the attribution of a voice to statues is an ecphrastic topos that highlights the life-like character of works of art (e.g. Posidippus, P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309, Austin-Bastianini 64,2-3). An elucidation of this background enables us to go beyond the simplistic binary of ‘language’ and ‘bodily expression’ and to understand accounts of pantomime as part of a larger aesthetic discourse that predates the invention of pantomime by several centuries.

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