The Semantic Gesture – an Invitation to a Journey from the Poetics to the Aesthetics of a Literary Work

• Introduction
If we speak of structuralism at the present time, we already know that there does not exist a single structuralism – and now I do not mean only those “national versions”of structuralist schools. Within these locally determined structuralisms, there exists a whole range of other structuralist currents that differ not only in detail, but often also in their perspective on key methodological or theoretical questions. From my point of view, the view of “our”, that is to say, Prague structuralism, this only testifies to the “unpetrifiable” capacity of structuralist thinking, its ability to further develop a productive theory; and at the same time the absorption in its very self, in its past success. In theory, and it seems to me, all the more in structural theory, all the past victories should only be a reason for continued noetic scepticism.

In the concept of the Prague school, structuralism in literary science is an index of proposals for an understanding of what a work of art is and how a literary text works. It is an index that needs to be constantly tried and revised. I say an index, not a system. The basic theoretical postulate of the Prague structuralists, that is a conviction as to internal dynamics of a literary work, is reflected also in their reluctance to closing their thinking through the trap of ‘systems’. It is as if an apprehension were manifested here that in such cases further theoretical work would be aimed primarily towards the servicing of the system, towards its locking and fixation. The variable reality of the work, its basic value consisting in a tension of the ever-renewed entering into the world, making claims upon the world, and therefore in its communication with the world, would recede to the background if this path were taken. If I say this, I do not mean to suggest that Prague structuralism represents an unsystematic type of thinking. That is contradicted by another postulate of Jan Mukařovský and his followers, that is, the mereological principle, within the scope of which the relation is examined of the whole and its parts and the place of the parts in the whole, their interaction (both constructiveand destructive) in the overall semantic construction. However, a closed system immuring itself stands against the conviction of Prague structuralists about the basic dynamic quality of a literary work incumbent in the pulsating interaction of the elements of its construction. The reason is obvious: Mukařovský, Vodička, Červenka, Sus, Jankovič, Doležel and others are not concerned with a mere list and description of elements from which the whole is composed and the mutual relations among these elements, but also with the question of their function, the principles of their effect and the problem of their value – and that is the explosive area of the theory, which will not allow the Prague Structuralists to definitely anchor their thought in the form of a diagrammatising system of semantic construction.

With all the differences, this basic principle of the Prague structuralist school is a constant. Its consequence, among others, is the fact that Czech Structuralism is spoken of as a theory of the unique – because the proposals of its practitioners concentrate much more on the varying reality of a single work and do not tend to create abstract systemic proposals. But even if something like that happens – such as in the case of Doležel’s proposal of narrative modes – the author of such a proposal accentuates his clear conviction as to the necessity of the modification of any system to the needs of a unique work (which in fact Doležel always practically executes in the second part of his Narrative Modes, in which he applies his system and finalises it in the environment of unique texts of fiction).

Therefore if I have denoted the functional approach and mereological principle as a pivot around which the whole thinking of the Prague Structuralists turns, I am approximating the central concept of the Prague school which appears in Jan Mukařovský’s work for the first time in the second half of the 30s (in: Genetika smyslu v Máchově poezii, 1938, úvod studie), and which is a permanent part of the theoretical proposals arising from the environment of Prague Structuralism, but also from the environment which made the structuralism of the Prague School the subject or resource of its study._1 This is the concept of semantic gesture, which Jan Mukařovský in the aforementioned study treats as a conjoint denominator, upon which all the components of the work are merged. While doing this, he is not primarily involved with the investigation of the content, but after the “reconstruction of that contentually unspecified (and in this sense – if you want – formal) gesture, with which the poet was selecting and consolidating the elements of his work”. It is the question of “unity of a dynamic building principle, which is exercised in the ever so little section of the work, and depends on the integral and unifying systemization of the elements” (Mukařovský 2001, p. 305).

There is not enough room here to dedicate ourselves in detail to the development of the concept of semantic gesture in Mukařovský and his followers, although to those concerned with the study of a history of the semantic gesture I can promise a driving and truly adventurous journey leading not only through the inextricable pathways of theory, but also through the tempests of historical events and hurricanes of revolutions. A journey in the course of which the semantic gesture turns into a politicum, and only by the way does it causes a very change in paradigm of Czech Structuralist theory.

• The first phase of constitution of the concept of the semantic gesture and its journey from author to reader
As was evident from the quotation above, in the first treatment of the concept of semantic gesture, Mukařovský relies upon the author’s intention, with which he firmly binds it, and the reader’s task then is to reconstruct that contentually unspecified gesture “through which the poet was choosing and uniting the element of his work” (Mukařovský 2001, p. 305).

Already in the first proposal of the definition, there are three basic dimensions present – three qualities, which will play a key role in the further development of the semantic gesture concept, and in the further development of the Czech structuralism as such: I mean the concepts of text, originator and perceiver. It will be necessary to found a relation among them which will help the understanding of their cooperating role while constituting the meaning. The question of a semantic source is solved in favour of the text at the beginning of Mukařovský’s text, and its sense is the result of the author’s intention which dynamises and unifies all textual elements. Therefore to grasp the sense it is necessary to identify this intention embedded in the work. But it also means that the reader becomes a rather passive decipherer of the code. However, this escalated initial viewpoint is significantly weakened already by the conclusion of Mukařovský’s ample study, which attempted to discern the principles of the semantic construction of a poetic piece by the prominent Czech Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha. After having examined the material, Mukařovský discovers the enormous potentiality of the textual element, which he examines (i.e. the motive) and which enters complex contextual relations,_ 2 in which it constantly modifies its meaning, and this activity (potentiality of the semantic action) “has the result that – similar to Impressionist art that relied on the co-operation of the spectator’s eye – Mácha’s poetry relies on the spiritual life of the reader whose task is to realize the connection between the motifs only hinted at in the work. (…) The polysemy of the relations among the individual semantic units allows every generation to put the sense into Mácha’s work, which it needs itself; every epoch reforms again, and at its own responsibility, the poet’s appearance in its own image, characterising thus both the poet and itself” (Mukařovský 2001 [1938], p. 375). Purposely, I emphasize an evident shift, in consequence of which the initial viewpoint of the textual intention moves from the author (poet) toward the reader. The same emphasis must be used while calling attention to the meaning of the words “reforms again” and “at its own responsibility”. These are important attributes – within the reach of their activity, a semantic gesture of a work of art is born, and they approximate it (i.e. the semantic gesture) to the situation of the perceiver to whom the recognition of the semantic gesture becomes a creative deed of “responsible” collaboration.

We can see what an unstable concept the semantic gesture is even within the scope of Mukařovský’s single study. Yet the unstableness of its definition is one of its characteristic features. Mukařovský keeps returning to the semantic gesture to clothe it again with content. However, his definitions are not linked, as we would wish to, for the sake of lucidity, and therefore there is no gradual perfection and deepening in the place where the previous attempt finished. Jan Mukařovský approaches the semantic gesture from different sides, and always slightly shifts its meaning. This has led to many misunderstandings in later interpretations. Briefly, I will try to illuminate the reasons:

The end of the 30s, when the study “Genesis of the Meaning of Mácha’s Work” originated, was an exceptionally important period for Czech Structuralism. This is because of a change of its paradigm. The concept of semantic gesture may be perceived not only as a consequence of this metamorphosis, but also as its possible cause. The attention of Mukařovský and his companions shifts from the poetics to the aesthetics of the poet’s work. A need intensifies to understand the work as part of an act of communication among the originator, perceiver and a broadly founded context. There occurs a conceptual determination of the work as a process of signification – i.e. not only as organization, but as a complex system of interactive relations. The work as an active communication unit (with the nature of aesthetic action) appeals to meaning which is determined by broadly determined context. It is a system of relations producing meaning which only surpass the borderlines of the inner context of the literary text – i.e. of relations given by the textual organization of elements, their position in the text of the work. The work, as a product, process and action unifying the sense, calls for the perceiver’s creative collaboration: (O strukturalismu [On stucturalism] 1946): “A work of art is [nevertheless] a highly complex sign: each of its components and each of its parts is a carrier of partial meaning. These partial meanings compose the general sense of the work. And only then, when the general sense of work is fixed, does the work of art become testimony to a relation of the originator to the reality and an appeal to the perceiver to adopt his/her own attitude towards the reality and relation, cognitive, emotional and volitional at the same time”. (Mukařovský 2000 [1946], p. 30). However, not to have the identity of the work disolved in a boundless number of concretisations, it is necessary to found it against something. The semantic gesture seems to be a welcome tool for this “logistic” operation. But it is necessary to configure it with the text, and suddenly it appears that this logistic operation will not be simple at all.

It will be necessary to re-define the semiotic process and its participants. A thorough inspection will be given to the concept of unifying semantic action – i.e. semantic gesture, but also the notions with which the Czech Structuralists try to name the participant of the process of meaning construction, therefore these are not only the notions of text and work, but mainly the notions of subject, creator (poet), perceiver and individuum. Their task is to establish their relation toward the literary work and the text, and their share in the production of sense. The conception of the semantic gesture and its functioning brings Mukařovský to the area in which the literary work professes the world in a certain manner and demands the allocation of sense. The mater of textual intention therefore becomes the most important question. But it is necessary to treat it so as not to close the meaning, but on the contrary – to preserve the dynamic productive tension of the textual structure.

With its decision to inspect the semantic gesture, i.e. the conditions under which meaning is constituted, Czech Structuralism leaves the theoretical “zone of certainty”, as characterised by Adorno [Adorno 1997 [1970], p. 464], and enters an uneasy zone of the action of sense. One of the consequences will also be the aforementioned inclination toward the theory of the unique, and misgivings with regard to unduly generalising systems or rather mistrust of them.

• Jankovič’s modification and specification of the semantic gesture
If there was one individual among the Czech Structuralists to really do a great deal for the conception of the semantic gesture, then it was Milan Jankovič. In his studies that have been published intermittently (due to the totalitarian ban on the publication of his books) since the end of the 60s till the present day, he has constantly returned to the concept of semantic gesture, further circumscribing it._3 Jankovič has managed to consolidate the semantically unstable and contentually insecure determination provided by Mukařovský. At the same time he kept the basic qualities already allocated by Mukařovský, only highlighting or finalising them. Mainly, there remained the legitimacy of the semantic gesture as a result of the general semantic movement of the work in an interaction between intentionality and unintentionality. For Jankovič, who defends the figurativeness of the name, the gesture is a denotative movement (Jankovič 2005, p. 116) that we are supposed to follow – therefore also the meaning is only an indicated movement inviting to be followed. He finds a fundamental discovery, which was consequent to the treating of the concept of semantic gesture, in an initiative nature (emphasised by MJ) of elements carrying meaning, accentuation of the process of formation and the arising of sense (emphasised by MJ): “In my opinion, there was – certainly on the axis of the previous tradition, the beginning of which I see in Kant – an essentially specified aesthetic structure as such, and especially its possibilities in the artistic creation. And I assume that the concept of the semantic gesture contributed significantly to this general topic. It avoided the straits of the isolated and static investigation of the aesthetic ‘circumstances’ (forms in the Herbartean sense), from which hardly any path leads to the concrete activity of the work. It related the fact of formative sentiment radically toward semantic and value-based movement. Firstly, it suggested that an intention heading toward values finds its language in art directly in expressive forms and in their reformation” (ibid., p. 119). If we speak of Jankovič’s contribution to the concept of the semantic gesture, it is necessary to exactly emphasize the approximation of the semantic gesture to the value of its value attachment and especially the imperative accentuation of an anthropological foundation of sense. To recognise the semantic gesture it is therefore necessary to “appreciate the sense-creating impulses, those intentions towards values, in expressions even more elementary than the value of the formative unification represented by Mukařovský’s concept of the semantic gesture” (ibid., p. 119).

A work concerns us in a certain way – it is the plot on which its pulsating structure works.

The concept of the semantic gesture approximates the work to reality, but the semantic action and sense of the work are not its (mirror) image, but a source of energy. Jankovič then mainly emphasizes the processionality of the semantic gesture, the product of which is the sense that is also “an output of the work, and is not a mere acknowledgement of validity to the work from outside” (ibid., p. 120). This results in a methodological suggestion: “An internal examination of the work, if it wants to be consequent, does not end with an establishment of a methodical principle of construction. A deeper, sensesearching reflexion is founded on its observation. It always singles out a seizable sense of the work again from the intimate tension of the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Only in this way does a work of art have a right to its own life, because what the work may mean to us is revealed more in its progress than in its completion” (ibid., p. 121). And eventually, it is Jankovič who stresses the relation between the aesthetic function and the semantic gesture. In his representation, the semantic gesture becomes a “factual realisation of an aesthetic function in the semantic construction of a work of art. Nevertheless, it represents the least definite component in it, i.e. exactly the ‘meaning-attitude’, ‘meaningperspective’, simply an appeal or direction for the perceiver to adopt a similarly creative attitude to reality as the creator” (ibid., p. 132)._4

For Jankovič, the work is therefore an impulse for an intersubjective establishment of sense; the subject of the work – on which a multiple intention participates, is an intersubjective activity, and from that issues also the value foundation of the semantic gesture.

Jankovič opened the semantic gesture to the reader’s situation to a maximum extent: The text retains its controlling authority, and as a producer collaborates in the sense, in which an important role is played not only by the capacity of the reader to recognise the textual meanings, but also his/her location in the world. Although the dominant role of the text is vindicated in Jankovič’s work on the determination of the semantic gesture, it seems to me that we are find ourselves too close to the conception that will accentuate an active role (domination) for the reader over textual meaning. Is it therefore possible to deal with the semantic gesture without the necessity of entering an uncertain and unstable domain of the reader? Is it possible to bind it to the text even more closely?

(And at this moment, there comes) Doležel’s important correction
For Doležel, Jan Mukařovský’s conception of the semantic gesture is a proof of the fact that Mukařovský’s semiotic poetics leaves no doubt as to who is responsible for the structure and meaning of the literary “message” (Doležel 1990, p. 178). How are we to understand this statement from Occidental Poetics? Especially if we consider it against the background of the aforementioned reflections. We may be aided by Doležel’s treatment of the principle of functioning of the intentional function and the foundation of intentional meaning – i.e. the concept with which he reinforces the textual identity of a work based on what he calls ‘texture’. Also the semantic gesture is perceived by Doležel as an intentional phenomenon, and as such “it is fully determined by its texture, it is affected by any textural change; It cannot be paraphrased, it slips through the net of interpretations, it is lost in retelling. Paraphrases or interpretations destroy the intentional meaning by destroying the original texture (…); the intentional meaning of the text cannot be convented otherwise than by repeating that text” (ibid., pp. 143–144). Does there exist an issue from this “narrow lane” in which the intentional meaning, the semantic gesture, logically finds itself outside the area demarcated by Jankovič – i.e. outside the situation of the reader (who could not participate in it in a creative way, which would mean a weakening of the anthrolopological principle of the identity of the literary work that was emphasised already by Mukařovský and upon which Jankovič insists)? Doležel suggests that we look for the way to the indirect study of intentions through the observable, analysis-accessible structuring of texture. This is the central motive of his work on the projection of a theory of fictitious worlds – i.e. the projection of textural intention into the fictional world of the work. He therefore also concentrates on the finding of the initial conditions for the origin of sense. These are more important to him than the very sense (individualisation of meaning), although it is exactly these that refer to (indicate) the “realm of sense”.

Doležel’s and Jankovič’s treatment of the semantic gesture are in a seeming antagonism. In Jankovič, the reader participates in the semantic gesture, and due to this the work to him becomes open to an individual sense. Doležel accentuates more evidently the objectivity of the literary work that bounds the sense of unique interpretation, and the semantic gesture as such as a datum of the texture and resists the concept of creative collaboration. However, the antagonism is only illusive and is washed away by the final allegation from the chapter of Heterocosmica dedicated to the intentional function: “Fictional macrosemantics observes the reader’s reconstruction and doing so, gradually apply three analytic approaches: it apprehends the regularitis of texture; from these regularities it derives the intentional structuring (and therefore the semantic gesture, if we want) of the fictional world; by applying an extensional metalanguage (e.g. paraphrase) it reconstructs the extensional world structuring. The structure of the world is not a set of separated levels, but a set of transformations converting one level into another” (Doležel 1990, p. 148). The reader’s reconstruction is therefore a grasping of the semantic gesture by its paraphrase, and due to that it also means individualization. Both concepts, those of Jankovič and of Doležel, thus meet, even though Jankovič’s is oriented rather towards the aesthetic nature of the act of literary semiosis, connecting the semantic gesture with the constitution of an aesthetic function, which is clearly perceived as a specific human attitude, founded and invited by the aesthetic function. Doležel then concentrates his attention more on the questions of the poetics of text, but he is also aware of the aesthetic “overrun”. The mutual encounter of both conceptions is underscored also by the global establishment of the dynamic nature of the structure, and therefore of the durability of the semantic action. However, in Jankovič’s concept, as it seems to me, an important role is played by discontinuance of this permanence – the nature of understanding, In other words: individualization of sense.

But it is clear enough to both of them that a theory dealing with a process of literary signification should not study the mental state of every recciver, but only “the conditions for an induction of this state, which are given in the same way in the structure of the work for all the perceiving individuals [and] are objectively detectable” (Mukařovský xxxx [1939], p. 343). And what yet needs to be accentuated – both Jankovič and Doležel reflect, in relation with the semantic gesture, mainly regarding the unique text – unique texture – because generalising of the conception of the semantic gesture could probably lead to unwanted simplification and to its depletion.

• The actual significance of the semantic gesture
The last question of my essay reads: How can the semantic gesture serve us today?

1. It provides a basis for research which, in attempt at formulating a reply to the question of the semantic construction of a work and its identity, abandon text-oriented theory and deal with questions of interaction between the originator, the text and the perceiver, and it reinforces, or allows us to keep, the central position of the text in the communication model. That means the position in which it is exactly the literary text as an open aggregate of potential meanings that refers to its originator, to its context as well as to its perceiver – i.e. to its inalienating sense.

2. The development of the concept of the semantic gesture already denotes the principles of constitution of meaning, which must be taken into consideration. This way the semantic gesture approximates the work to the situation of the reader and points at the principles of the happening of sense (told with Milan Jankovič) – the unique and still not definite.

3. Lubomír Doležel’s closure of the semantic gesture with texture and his grasp of it as an intentional function retains the potentionality of the semantic action. It also shows that meaning is part of paraphrase, but that it is precedent to it. The antagonism between the view of Doležel, who insists upon the textual determination of the semantic gesture, and that of Jankovič, who introduces also the reader’s intention into the play (although he does not make it absolute) is beneficial because it opens up the transitional area in which the identity of meaning must be exercised and the constitution of the work as an aesthetic object must be observed.

4. The semantic gesture conception this way de facto invites an interdisciplinary analysis of principles, as a result of which the literary work retains its actuality; or in other words: under the functioning of which the literary work designates not only its meaning, but also its literary nature.

5. The conception of the semantic gesture shows that it is exactly the internal potentionality of the literary structure of the work as an aesthetic object, which should make us wary of conceptions that only want to study the poetics of the text and look away from its aesthetics, i.e. from the questions of the effect and value of its elements and the work as a whole – that is, from its unique situation in the world – therefore we must perceive the semantic gesture as a result of a pragmatic situation._5

6. Because the concept of the semantic gesture is one of macro-structural semantics, it directs our attention towards macro-structural processes, e.g. to the question of literary development. Then, through its mediation, it is possible, for example, to study metamorphoses in successive stages of reception. So there emerges also the question of standards, their validity, contravention and development. In an equal manner, the question of the relation of the aesthetic function to other functions gains significance. In this sense, Jakobson’s appeal is renewed and creatively shifted, for literature to be examined within the scope of the discourse that it produces – i.e. within the scope of its literary nature. At the same time, the semantic gesture leads, or has the capacity to lead, the literary nature from a narrow and isolationist immanentism.

The semantic gesture turns our attention toward the very action of the formation of meaning, to the principles of its construction (and reconstruction); it shows that meanings do not lie here at hand, ready to use, but that they must be constructed (re-constructed) by a creative mind. Therefore they are not only a matter of poetics and within the reach of their conceptual tools, but they are also a concern of aesthetics, a relation of the work to reality and its effect. At the same time, the semantic gesture proposed by the Czech Structuralists makes it impossible to understand the relation between an intention and a effect as a consequence of simple irreversible causality. The conception of the semantic gesture frees the reader on the one hand – it gives him/her the possibility to individualise the semantic construction to its momentary situation – but on the other hand, it deprives him/her of the freedom: it is necessary to view the textual readiness of the individual significance and to recognise it as a part of the structural interplay of elements and levels of the literary work. It is a unique meaning, but not the only one. I assume that the Czech School could not do more by means of the concept of the semantic gesture neither for structuralism as such nor for the identity of the literary work.

Through a journey to the semantic gesture and the efforts of its grasping and therefore grasping the roofing sense of a literary work, I wanted to show that the semantic gesture itself is not important as such, as a final tool and a roofing principle of analysis, but also that the journey which leads through history of the Czech structuralism and in the course of which, in consequence of the effort to define the principles of functioning and formation of the semantic gesture, paradigm of structuralist thinking changes. It is a journey from poetics and the formal description of elements of the literary text to aesthetics of the literary work. The semantic gesture then is a product of an effort to seize and reinforce not only the identity of the literary work, but also its vitality, which rests upon its capacity of being ever open to sense. Understanding the principle of the functioning of the work as an action of sense which, however, finds itself within the reach of the work and therefore is controlled and controllable by it, transforms the literary work from an object of pathological literary-scientific analysis into a form of understanding it as a living tissue. Its individual parts are simple elements no more, but co-active organs which provide its function – and that is wedded with its entrance into the world. The semiotic approach and the pragmatic approach to the work are interconnected in this concept. The result can be a glimpse of its essence as a work of art that is open to creative understanding.


Here I mean for example the work of Herta Schmid, Wolf Schmid, Peter Burg, Miloš Sedmidubský and others.

And that is a very important observation which further turns the attention of Jan Mukařovský and the Czech Structuralists toward the role and nature of context as a significance-creating element.

Parts of these circumscriptions are also polemic contributions to the studies by Herta Schmid or Wolf Schmid.

Therefore in connection with sense, Jankovič amplifies the inner circle and the outer circles. In the inner circle of the work, there occurs the production of the variably updated work's sense, and here we are a significant, percipient individual. In the inner circle (original intention toward values expressed through the expressive capacity of paradigms) there is a significance-creating work.

In 2003 the book What is Narratology? was published in Hamburg, in Naratologia edition, and through the key question of the theory of narration, which was investigated by prominent contemporary narratologists, a conviction kept returning as a leitmotiv that it is necessary to head from the semiotic research toward a broader semantic research, in which an important role is played also by pragmatics. It is evident that the Prague Structuralists arrived at a similar recognition – for them the semantic gesture is a result of a pragmatic situation. The journey that was necessary to be undertaken, and the important milestones, which always meant amplification of the concept of the work by further aspects (be it the perceiver, the context, the matter of value and conception of the work as a coexistence of the object and the sign), which were necessary to be invited to the symposium on the nature can provide important support to the contemporary research of the nature of narrative action.


Adorno, Theodor: Estetická teorie. Panglos, Praha 1997.

Doležel, Lubomír: Heterocosmica. Fiction and possible worlds. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1998.

Jankovič, Milan: Cesty za smyslem literárního díla. Karolinum, Praha 2005.

Mukařovský, Jan: Studie I. Host, Brno 2000.

Mukařovský, Jan: Studie II. Host, Brno 2001.

Studie je součástí grantového projektu GA ČR 405/07/0077.