Saturday, May 7, 2016

Salutes and Semiotics

We earlier offered semiotic analyses of politically-tinged postures and gestures, in Europe

     La quenelle

and in the Middle East

     The Rabi`ah

And now such a controversy has flared up in the United States, specifically at West Point.   In a highly interesting and well-illustrated article in this morning’s New York Times,

we are invited to consider this graduation photo:

Now, as a non-veteran civilian, I shall have nothing at all to say about this Army-internal controversy, leaving that to the warfighters themselves.   But a word about the ambiguities of the symbolism.

The raised-fist gesture has been around a long time, appearing in a wide variety of contexts, though  in general  with a common theme of militancy.   I first encountered it personally in the late 1960’s, as part of the movement against the Vietnam War.  At the time, there were actually two raised-hand antiwar gestures.  The one more familiar to outsiders was that of a raised hand with two lifted fingers, the index and the medius (Pointer” and “Tall-man” as we called them in kindergarten -- O happy days!);  and that, to be sure, with the palm towards the onlooker; the same gesture with the onlooker facing the back of the hand, is not used in America, but is used in England, and means something quite different, and very very bad.  This gesture was often called the “Peace sign”;  it was the badge of the peacenik.  Although most of us who flashed the thing didn’t know it at the time, it was an odd choice for an antiwar symbol, since the same sign during the second World War was the “V for Victory” sign, universally known.   Well, autre temps, autre sémiotique.
The raised fist, in its beginnings, was subtley different:  it was the signature gesture, not of peaceniks, but of activists, militants, and had roots in the Communist movement (a fact probably unknown to most who came to use the gesture, simply for its jaunty sexiness).  In their purist form, the gestures meant respectively  “Bring the Boys Home” (a moderate slogan, suitable for patriots) and “Bring the War Home” (in the startling formulation of the Weathermen, of insurrectionary intent.).

Back to the posed photograph.   Its evaluation, and the actions to be taken as a consequence, hinge crucially on the fact that these soldiers are in uniform;  that is the essential context, sine qua non. I know of people who have been stripped of their security clearances and even drummed out of the service, for having done something publically in uniform  which they would be perfectly at liberty to do in civvies. As such, it is a matter for the Army in general and West Point in particular;  for the rest of us, it is none of our affair.
But as semioticians, we may consider a bit.

The pose itself is striking -- and, to this observer, strikingly handsome, considered only as a tableau.   It calls to mind  such sculptural compositions as  this (from the Arc de Triomphe):

But more pertinently, we are dealing here, not with such stray, subjective associations, but with a context within a context, the larger context (as the article illustrates) being specifically a long-standing West Point tradition, exemplified by this, from 1884:

Thus, while the raised-fist motif (of ambiguous interpretation, now that the gesture has been so watered-down as to be exploited by pop stars) might or might not seem defiant or truculent (eye of the beholder),  it occurs in a framing that is in fact ultra-Army and ultra-traditionalist.  And quite possibly,  what was in the minds of these young women at the time  was not really that of insurrection (let alone Communist), but more along the lines of another Army tradition:  esprit de corps.

[Aesthetic footnote]  The distaff composition actually seems quite a bit more "Hoo-ah!" than that of the 19th century men.  Most of them can't stand up straight; the guys  towards the bottom  seem to have melted.

[Psychological footnote]  As a complete outsider to all this, what first struck me (and somewhat shocked me) about the picture, was not the fists, any minatory interpretation of which was at least partly neutralized by the merry grin on the woman stage-left, and the cocked-head dreamy half-smile of the woman at the opposite bannister (who resembles a -- white -- woman I work with).  Rather, it was the grey old-fashioned uniforms.  Had they dressed up as Confederates?  Surely not;  the article identifies the kit as “traditional gray dress uniforms”.   To contextualize adequately  requires expert testimony;  you can’t just go by the sight of your eyes.


  1. Are you familiar with Italian finger-swearing? See numerous Youtube videos.

  2. Good contribution to the discussion. See also this: