Category Archives: gesture

New publications!

Our collaborator Professor Guillemette Bolens at the University of Geneva has some fantastic new publications out in fields relating to Literature & the Face. Details and links to online access below!

G. Bolens, “Kinesic intelligence, medieval illuminated psalters, and the poetics of the psalms.” Studia Neophilologica, 2022,

G. Bolens, “Inventive embodiment and sensorial imagination in medieval drawings: The marginalia of the Walters Book of Hours MS W.102.” Cogent Arts & Humanities 9 (1), 2022,

G. Bolens, “Embodied cognition, kinaesthetic knowledge, and kinesic imagination in visual arts and literature.” Frontiers in Communication. Sec. Multimodality of Communication, 2022,

G. Bolens, “The sense of movement in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” English Studies, 2022,


We have launched a new monthly ‘Reading Hour’ for Literature and the Face. Sessions will be held in-person at the University of Melbourne on Tuesday afternoons. We welcome Graduate Researchers and staff from across the university who are interested in topics relating to our project such as faciality, emotions, portraiture, facial-recognition technologies and more.

In our first session in April we examined Mina Loy’s Auto-Facial-Construction (1919), an advertising pamphlet Loy produced that outlines a range of exercises and instructions for achieving what she termed ‘facial integrity.’ For Loy, the ability to communicate one’s true personality to others requires a physical restructuring of the face that harmonises outside appearance with an inner subjectivity, aimed at achieving the ‘fitting esthetic revelation in our faces.’ She stages the unity of self and face through a process of self-fashioning that revives our ‘inherent right … to look like ourselves.’

You can read Auto-Facial-Construction online in this wonderful edition in the Yale
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Christina Walter’s essay in the Modernist Commons, “Feminist Manifesto” and Auto-Facial-Construction, provides an excellent background to the pamphlet.

On May 10th we will meet again to read the next text in our series: Georg Simmel’s 1901 essay, “The Aesthetic Significance of the Face.” To join us in person please contact Tyne Sumner at

‘Adorable World!’: From Face to Story in Virginia Woolf’s ‘An Unwritten Novel’

In our forthcoming paper at the University of Melbourne, we will be speaking about a chapter-in-progress on the face in Virginia Woolf’s ‘An Unwritten Novel’.

The history of the face in literature can be told from many different angles, and from many different starting points. We begin our history with a moment that, in one sense, is arbitrary: a relatively unknown short story by Virginia Woolf recommended to us by our colleague Ken Gelder. ‘An Unwritten Novel’ (1921) is oriented around a single moment of covert face reading that takes place in that classic site of modern public and social life: the train carriage. The narrator of the story starts to spin a narrative around the face of a stranger in the carriage that sets in motion a meta reflection on the problem of writing and the conventions of the realist novel. Instead of generating a novel—with its quotidian detail, familiar class and family dynamics, and its drive towards closure—her observations settle instead on the phenomenon of thought itself and on how one would have to write in order to capture the thoughts which flutter across a face. The ‘turn’ of the short story, then, becomes paradoxically a turn away from narrative. Our paper considers how the face in Woolf’s story poses problems for narrative representation that lead to a different kind of novel and a different kind of literary history.  

You can read the story here!

CFP: Disturbed Faces

We’re thrilled to announce the Call For Papers for our trilingual collaborative conference – Disturbed Faces (Visages perturbés / Verstörte Gesichter).

Disturbed Faces will be hosted by the literature program at the University of Geneva and the Swiss Association of General and Comparative Literature.

When: 3rd-5th November, 2022 at the University of Geneva

Call for Papers

The human face is a part of the body as well as a sensorimotor process and an intersubjective and social phenomenon. A bodily place, it is located at the level of the head, but it often manifests the emotional and expressive state of the body as a whole. Sensorimotor process, it causes sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell and kinaesthesia, and this reciprocally: we perceive and we are perceived through our face. It establishes self-awareness as a subject capable of entering into relationship with other living beings. The face attracts our attention at all times, but especially when a health crisis forces us to rethink our way of communicating – masked, from a distance or by interposed screens. 

In literature and the visual arts, the face can be the central element in the construction of characters. The physical aspect, the expressiveness and the modifications of the face manifest emotions and thoughts. The face thus positions the characters in their relationship to others and defines their role and function in the plot. Finally, it allows and establishes the possibility of identification with the characters during the reception. So what happens when this preeminent role is disrupted? How is a disturbed face constructed, represented or thought out and how can it be put into perspective with other forms of relation to the face? What role and what impact does it have on the construction of the characters, on their relationships and on the plot in literary works and the visual arts (comics, cinema, installations)? 

The annual ASLGC colloquium – which will be held from 03 to 05 November 2022 at the University of Geneva in collaboration with the international research project Literature and the Face: A Critical History (Australian Research Council) – aims to explore the representations and constructions of the ‘disturbed face’ in literatures around the world, favoring an approach that is both interdisciplinary and intersemiotic. It thus seeks to bring together literary study, the visual arts and other disciplines in which the face plays an epistemological role (philosophy, sociology, medicine, law), starting from the principle that the face is never given as it is and that it is always constructed in a discursive as well as a semiotic way in the broad sense, in a cognitive and emotional way as well as in a cultural and social way.

Organizing committee

Prof. ass. Evelyn Dueck
Prof. Guillemette Bolens
Prof. Martin Rueff

Terms of participation

The research presented must not have been the subject of a previous publication or communication. Interventions can be given in French, English, Italian or German. The communication proposal (the submission of a one-page summary and a short biography) must reach the organizing committee before January 31, 2022 at the following addresses: and


Up-Close, Far Away


Reflecting on cinema’s love of the close-up, in 1924 the Hungarian film critic and poet Béla Balázs observed: 

‘In close-ups every wrinkle becomes a crucial element of character and every twitch of a muscle testifies to a pathos that signals great inner events.’ 

When we think of close-ups of the human face, cinema is often the medium that comes to mind. On film, enlarged faces take audiences into a different reality, transporting us to the ‘inner events’ of another person’s emotions and psyche. Although cinematic close-ups focus our attention and senses, bringing us face-to-face with another person and another world, they are also heightened from life in that they convey an intimacy normally reserved for those with whom we are most closely acquainted.  

Jean Dorothy Seberg in Breathless (À bout de souffle) 1960, Jean-Luc Godard

Over the past year and a half, the uncanny intimacy of the facial close-up – usually the domain of cinema and TV – has become a dominant feature our everyday lives with the pandemic requiring us to replace in-person faces with those on a screen. At once there but not there, imitate yet distant, affective yet detached, up-close yet far away, the faces we encounter in videoconferences are most unlike the faces we see in the supermarket or in passing on the street. Appearing in a tessellated grid of juxtaposed frames with eye gaze at close range, the faces in videocalls are both real and alien, distorted in size and metonymically rendered as an exaggerated visage standing in for the human whole.  

In a recent article on what is now known as ‘zoom fatigue,’ Jeremy Bailenson observes how on Zoom, ‘behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships – such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up – has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.’ In this digital milieu, the irregular size of faces on the screen, combined with the inordinate amount of time spent looking at the ‘front-on view’ of other people’s faces, produces an uncanny and exhausting cognitive effect.  

Adding to this strangeness, regardless of who is speaking at any given point, each person present in a Zoom videocall is usually looking directly at the eyes of several other people at the same time. In face-to-face interaction, direct eye contact is rarely sustained, unlike the compounding effect of seeing multiple sets of eyes, expressions, and faces without interruption. The intensity and persistence of this gaze – indirect and yet focused at the same time – effectively transforms social interaction into a predominantly observational exercise.  

The Zoom Call: A Familiar Scene (Image credit: Compare Fibre, Unsplash)

How can we explain the psychological effect this is having? Is close, sustained observation of each other’s faces in this way changing the very nature of our relationships and how we understand each other and the world? Afterall, the ways in which we structure our gaze in face-to-face interactions is dependent upon a myriad of contextual factors such as the number of people in the room, the nature of our immediate setting, the tone and social atmosphere of our environment and so on. To take this away means placing disproportionate emphasis on the minute, often coded subtleties of facial expression and gesture, often with interpretive consequences that aren’t intended. 

Take for example the sidelong glance, which carries significant and subtle social meaning, depending upon the range of contextual factors at play. A glance – fleeting, encoded, strategic – is often used to signal an unspeakable truth, surveil another’s mood, or suggest a complex social cue. The charged domestic scenes of Jane Austen’s novels contain numerous exemplary glances, each giving readers insight into a network of interpersonal social dynamics at work. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s sidelong glance registers a range of cross-relational observations and changes in the mood of a single room: 

“She could not help frequently glancing her eye at Mr. Darcy, though every glance convinced her of what she dreaded; for though he was not always looking at her mother, she was convinced that his attention was invariably fixed by her. The expression of his face changed gradually from indignant contempt to a composed and steady gravity” 

In literary texts, authors employ precise facial signs such as Elizabeth’s ‘glancing eye’ to draw us into the intersubjective dynamics of a social scene. The rhetorical glue that holds these scenes together, though, is context: where Darcy is sitting, who else is in the room, what has happened immediately prior, and what remains unspoken. The implicit social meaning of a close-up sidelong glance is therefore contiguous with a multitude of contextual markers (frowns, blushing cheeks, smiles, body posture, dress) that we use to understand the nuances of social relationships.  

‘The side-long glance’ (Pride and Prejudice, 1995 film adaptation)

To return to my study of the close-up face online, it follows then that the deeply condensed meaning of the sidelong glance in Zoom risks profound misinterpretation when divorced from its necessary adjacent social clues. In the close-up world of the videocall, we are bombarded with nonverbal cues that would otherwise have highly specific meaning in a face-to-face context. Moreover, the face’s nonverbal synchrony is largely unconscious and effortless but at the same time mediated by our unfortunate ability to see our own faces reflected back on screen.  

Although we can change the settings in Zoom to ‘hide self view,’ the software’s default setting shows us our own real-time camera feed. Self-monitoring our idiosyncrasies, we are presented with a mirror-image of our facial expressions and gestural signs. Subtle eye movements, an inclination of the head or a raised eyebrow are cast in full view, giving us a live-feed of our individual attempts at sociality, both subtle and direct. This peculiar self-evaluation – seeing one’s face as if in a mirror as we interact with others – generates a bizarre performative mimesis: interaction becomes secondary to performing the self for our very own approval.  

Finally, in getting a closer view of the facial images in front of us, both of other’s faces and our own, we lose a sense of the necessary distance that characterises encounters in the real. In Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer, reflects on the distortion of reality that close-ups of faces bring about: 

“Any huge close up reveals new and unsuspected formations of matter; skin textures are reminiscent of aerial photographs, eyes turn into lakes or volcanic craters. Such images blow up our environment in a double sense: they enlarge it literally; and in doing so, they blast the prison of conventional reality, opening up expanses which we have explored at best in dreams before.”  

The visual impact of the close-up face, as Kracauer describes it, could be thought of in terms of abstract imagery or metaphor. At close range, facial features take on different rhetorical meaning; as if each existed distinct from the whole. Working in a different mode to cinema or the descriptive prose of the novel, poets frequently engage evocative images and metaphors to describe discrete elements of a single face. In ‘Tulips’ Sylvia Plath evokes the image of a single eye ‘between two white lids that will not shut’ as that of a ‘head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff’ while in ‘An Eye, Open’ Paul Celan breaks the image of the eye into a set of discrete images, personifying its various parts: 

‘Aching depth of the eyeball: 

the lid 

does not stand in its way, the lash 

does not count what goes in. 


The tear, half,  

the sharper lens, movable, 

brings the images home to you.’ 

As in these lines, the experience of seeing a face up-close is unquestionably poetic, as much as it is, at times, disturbing, exhausting and strange. From the abnormal self-evaluation that persists with the Zoom self-camera view, to the daily oddness of seeing our friends, colleagues and stranger’s faces close-up and sustained on screen for periods far longer than could perhaps ever be tolerated in person, there is still a great deal for us to learn about the social, psychological and cultural consequences of our shift to observing so many faces online. There have, of course, been some advantages to this sudden and dramatic change for but many of us, just like Austen’s Elizabeth, ‘every glance convinced her of what she dreaded.’  

Tyne Daile Sumner

  • Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Books, 2014.  
  • Bailenson, J. ‘Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue.’ Technology, Mind, and Behaviour, 2021. 
  • Balázs, B. Early Film Theory: Visible Man & The Spirit of Film, edited by Erica Carter, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1924, 
  • Celan, P. ‘An Eye, Open.’ Poetry, 1971.  
  • Kracauer, S. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960. p. 48 
  • Plath, S. ‘Tulips.’ Collected Poems. Harper Collins, 1992. 
Chaucer reading his poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer, Taylor Swift and Scott Morrison: From Smiling to Smirking

In the song “Happiness”, from her 2020 release Evermore, Taylor Swift articulates the break-down of a relationship. She asks a bitter rhetorical question:

Tell me, when did your winning smile
Begin to look like a smirk? 

In one of those uncanny moments when popular culture addresses our historical research interests, these lyrics jumped out at me. I have been working on the history of the gesture we know as smiling. Curiously, this history intersects and overlaps with the very different trajectory of the word smirk.

The verb to smile — originating in a hypothetical Middle Low German word smilen — is not recorded in English before the fourteenth century. And when it does appear, it does so in a very specific, remarkably tentative way, as if people really are “beginning” to smile.

Here is a telling example.

In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1386), Pandarus has been trying to persuade his niece Criseyde to accept the love of Prince Troilus. Finally, she overcomes her initial hesitation, and asks if Troilus can speak well of love.

‘Kan he wel speke of love?’ quod she; ‘I preye,
Tel me, for I the bet me shal purveye.’                      [so I may prepare myself the better]

Tho Pandarus a litel gan to smyle,
And seyde, ‘By my trouthe, I shal yow telle….’

                        (Troilus and Criseyde, II. 503-506)

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 061, Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, f.37r,
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Pandarus’s smile is described only briefly; and it is minimal. Yet to the attentive reader, it signifies Pandarus’ unspoken pleasure and knowledge that Criseyde has started to unbend and warm towards the idea of Troilus.

Middle English is notoriously slippery in its use of the verb onginnen, from Old English onginnan. When used in the past tense (gan)as an auxiliary verb, as here, it sometimes carries the full meaning of “began to do something…”; though at other times it is simply a short-hand auxiliary verb to signify the past tense. Here, does Pandarus begin to smile a little, or does he smile a little? Either way, the gesture calls up a world of understanding between narrator and reader as we observe Criseyde responding to Pandarus’s powers of persuasion. This slow-moving smile is a good example of what I think we might call intimate faciality: the close-up examination of the face.

Most other uses of smile in Middle English are modified in this way, as characters begin to smile, or smile a little, or in part. This use of the verb smile corresponds in meaning to French sourire, Italian sorridere, from Latin subrideo, a sub-laugh: a smile on the way to becoming a laugh.

But what did medieval people do before they used the verb to smile? The Old English verb for smiling is smearcian, and this appears several times in Middle English as smirken. This is the same word as modern English “smirk”, but the modern associations with a malicious or contemptuous expression aren’t part of its medieval meanings at all. These associations don’t enter English until about the sixteenth century. In effect, it was only as smiling became more widespread that smirk developed its current meaning of a malicious or smug gesture.

Conversely, the word “grin” from Old Norse grenja, “to howl”, enters English as a word that describes the particular physical gesture of opening the mouth and baring the teeth. It is used in Old English and Middle English of demons, the devil, monsters, and wild animals. It does not develop the modern sense of a less threatening and more cheerful gesture until the sixteenth century.

It’s not surprising that words in English change their meaning and usage. But these semantic and textual histories are important documents in our history of facial rhetoric and facial gesture. They add another dimension to the cultural history of the smile by Colin Jones, for example, who writes illuminatingly about the social and cultural difference made to the public meaning of the smile by hygiene and dentistry in eighteenth-century France.

For example, if fourteenth-century poetry starts to show interest in the slow-motion movement of a smile associated with private knowledge and inner understanding, we might develop the hypothesis that this kind of intimate facial gesture becomes more apparent and of greater interest in the increasing use of private rooms in late medieval domestic architecture, where instead of eating and spending their lives in the public hall, the noble family would increasingly retreat to a private chamber. This social phenomenon was noted by Chaucer’s contemporary, William Langland.

Unhappy is the hall, every day in the week,
Where the lord and the lady have no liking to sit.
Now has each rich man a rule to eat by himself
In a private parlor to avoid poor men,
Or in a chamber with a chimney-corner, and leave the chief hall empty
That was made for men to eat their meals in.

William Langland, Piers Plowman, B.X.97-102, trans. E. T. Donaldson.

Reading poetry in English might well have taken place in this smaller, more close-up setting, where facial expression might also have been studied with closer attention.

Taylor Swift’s question about a smile becoming a smirk also raises issues of temporality, sociality and private knowledge on a small and intimate scale. Was this a particular smile that began to change into a smirk? Did the outer edges of the person’s mouth move upwards? Or did her perception of the smile change? Perhaps it was not a smile on a particular occasion but a characteristic facial gesture, at first attractive, and now less so? Is a smile an intentional act of communication, or something perceived and remembered by another? Swift’s ingenuous address, “Tell me … ”, plays on this ambiguity of perception: how could it be possible for the smiler to answer her question? And what is a “winning” smile? That’s another word with rich shades of meaning from something that might be charming, to something that might be triumphant, on the way to becoming an unpleasant smirk.

We are finding that in modern culture, from the late medieval period on, people read faces closely all the time, not just in literary texts, but also, in popular lyrics and in political culture.

The current Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, sometimes wears a facial expression that has become known as a smirk. It was the work of only a few minutes on Twitter to find close analysis of the Prime Ministerial face. Here is just one gloss on some video footage of Scott Morrison from March 2021, when Liberal MP Andrew Laming was charged with taking photographs of a woman in a shop as she bent down. The accompanying tweet reads:

Chin raised up because he feels superior looking down his nose at the journo, smug and arrogant. Covers his face to try & hide his smirk because he sees upskirting as being funny probably everything else. This shows he only responded when people protested.

The Prime Ministerial smirk

Smiles and smirks are mutable, both in the case of particular gestures, and in semantic histories. Whether it’s in the analysis of political images, the finely wrought lyrics of popular song or the incidental plot machinery of late medieval romance, the vocabulary and semantic history of the smile — and the smirk — are rich topics for the cultural history of facial gestures.

Stephanie Trigg


Kinesic Humor: Literature, Embodied Cognition, and the Dynamics of Gesture

Our project team member, Professor Guillemette Bolens, has recently published a new book with Oxford University Press –  Kinesic Humor: Literature, Embodied Cognition, and the Dynamics of Gesture.

The triggers of laughter in spoken language or conversation can often be very simple, such as a change in gesture, or in vocal tone or tempo. Speakers and listeners understand these dynamics of gesture through motor cognition and use them to great effect. The causes of laughter and the experience of humor in written texts, however, are less well understood. Kinesic Humor offers a cognitive poetics-based study of triggers of laughter in texts, focusing in particular on tonic shifts and gesture in plot and narrative.

Bolens shows how literary texts from a variety of periods provide remarkably precise information concerning kinesthesia, the role of tonicity in communication, and the impact of momentum, timing, and tempo on the way in which gestures are processed in human exchanges. She investigates the narrative use of such parameters and how they prompt laughter in a wide-ranging corpus of major authors that includes Chrétien de Troyes, Cervantes, Milton, Saint-Simon, Rousseau, Sterne, and Stendhal. Using the theory of embodied cognition, Bolens shows how thwarted perceptions and expectations of movements and sensations produce the cognitive shifts typical of humor. Bringing together narratology, cognitive studies, gesture studies, humor studies, and historical context, this book offers original perspectives on important artworks and represents a major contribution to cognitive poetics.

Originally published in French as L’Humour et le savoir des corps in 2016, this volume not only brings the work to an English-speaking audience for the first time but expands significantly on the original by analyzing a new corpus of texts and engaging with recent advances in the field to develop a cutting-edge theory of kinesic humor.

You can find Guillemette’s new book here!