Embodied interaction: Language and body in the material world

Embodied interaction: Language and body in the material world. Ed. by Jürgen Streeck, Charles Goodwin, and Curtis LeBaron. (Leaning in doing: Social, cognitive and computational perspectives.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 308, ISBN 9780521895637. $99 (Hb).

Reviewed by Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini, University of Warwick

Readers interested in human interaction analysis will find in this book a highly stimulating and varied sample of essays reporting on the latest advances in the field. The interactional settings included range from the more widely studied, such as family, classroom, and informal conversation, to musical and clinical events, gaming, and auctions. In addition to English, Japanese, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and American Sign Language are featured in the analyses. In spite of their diverse interactional environments, all essays effectively demonstrate the ‘cooperative semiosis’ (Charles Goodwin, Ch. 13) that characterizes multimodality. Goodwin’s own essay is based on the moving and compelling analysis of an aphasic man with a three-word vocabulary, and shows how human action cannot be understood from within any isolated semiotic modality, or even within the individual actor.

Elizabeth Keating and Chiho Sunakawa in Ch. 14 also illustrate how the distribution of meaning unfolds ‘across multiple modalities simultaneously and sequentially’ (203), especially in virtual environments. Space, whether virtual or not, looms large in this collection. Mapping the topographics of intercorporeality reveals the patterns and rituals of, for example, family routines (Eve Tulbert and Marjorie H. Goodwin, Ch. 6). The subtle choreographic aspect of human interaction is visible even in its most basic, perhaps fundamental, genre, that of the informal conversation (Shimako Iwasaki, Ch. 8), regardless of the language under examination. The expressivity of performance reaches new heights in musical events, where sound, bodies, instruments, and space, among others, synchronize in the materiality of orchestration. In the final chapter, John B. Haviland provocatively concludes his essay on the analysis of musical spaces of interaction with this musing: ‘One wonders how different our view of the world, text, discourse, and conversation might have been had we started not with disembodied wiretaps of telephone conversations but with the richness of a procession of Zinacantec musicians, a string quartet rehearsal, or a jazz jam session’ (304).

This is a pertinent question indeed, addressed not only to interaction analysts, but to all involved in language and communication analysis. How much longer can we ignore the quintessentially embodied nature of most, if not all, of human communication? The discovery of ‘emotions’, another field of multidisciplinary scholarship, is fairly recent. Having left the body behind, as it were, as inessential to a holistic understanding of human communication, for decades we proceeded to analyze language as if affect were tangential or irrelevant. Embodied analyses, such as those in this book, remind us of the integrity of the human interactant as a situated, sensual actor, participating in his or her environment and in the lives of other animate or inanimate entities through a range of modalities, of which language is one, and not always the critical one.

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