Fifteen ways of looking at a pointing gesture
The human pointing gesture may be viewed from many angles. On a basic description, it is an intentional movement, often of the hand, by which one person tries to direct another’s attention toward something; it is, in short, a bodily command to look. But this definition is only a start. Pointing may also be seen as a semiotic primitive, a philosophical puzzle, a communicative workhorse, a protean universal, a social tool, a widespread taboo, a partner of language, a part of language, a fixture of art, a graphical icon, a cognitive prop, a developmental milestone, a diagnostic window, a cross-species litmus test, and an evolutionary stepping-stone. A tour of these fifteen ways of looking at pointing reveals the diverse dimensions of one of our most unassuming, ubiquitous behaviors. It also reveals a series of dualities that make the gesture especially compelling: it is at once natural and irreducibly cultural; simple yet put to sophisticated purposes; by turns salient and subtle; and is—in its prototypical form, with the index finger extended—special in some ways and not so special in others. These tensions in part explain why pointing has been treated so widely and variously across disciplines. But there is also, I propose, a deeper reason: The gesture embodies our distinctively human preoccupation with attention.