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Barack Obama, being sharp: Indexical order in the pragmatics of precision-grip gesture

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Gesture in political oratory and debate is renowned for its nonreferential indexical functions, for the way it purportedly can indicate qualities of speaker and materialize acts of persuasion — functions famously addressed in Quintilian’s classic writings but understudied today. I revisit this problematic through a case study of precision-grip (especially thumb to tip of forefinger) in Barack Obama’s debate performances (2004–2008). Cospeech gesture can index valorized attributes of speaker — not directly but through orders of semiotic motivation. In terms of first-order indexicality, precision-grip highlights discourse in respect of information structure, indicating focus. In debate, precision grip has undergone a degree of conventionalization and has reemerged as a second-order pragmatic resource for performatively “making a ‘sharp’, effective point.” Repetitions and parallelisms of precision grip in debate can, in turn, exhibit speaker-attributes, such as being argumentatively ‘sharp’, and from there may even partake in candidate branding.

Keywords: focus; gesture; indexicality; politics; pragmatics; precision-grip

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2011

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