Many years before Adele stuck it to the suits at the Brit Awards, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the economist Piero Sraffa were traveling on a train from Cambridge to London. It proved to be a key moment in 20th-century philosophy. They were chatting about Wittgenstein’s idea that every proposition had to have a precise place in the axiomatic order of rational language, independently of the various contexts in which it may be employed. And then, according to fellow philosopher Norman Malcolm, “Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans and meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger tips of one hand.”
Sraffa’s point was that there are many things in heaven and Earth that didn’t fit in Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Any philosophy of language must account for hand gestures, not just Neapolitan ones, but the Reverse Churchill (not V for Victory but the other way round), the Bras d’Honneur, the Grecian Moutza (sticking five fingers at the insultee), Onanism’s Fisty Homage (you know the one), L for loser and the eloquently Italianate Forearm Jerk and Accompanying Chin Flick. It also needs to make sense of why the Fig Gesture (making your thumb peep between index and ringer finger in a closed fist) is obscene in France, Greece, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Turkey, but betokens good luck in Portugal and Brazil.
By the time they got off the train, Wittgenstein realized he would have to change his whole philosophy. True story. Sadly, Wittgenstein died in 1951 and so never lived to see how one gesture — the middle finger of one’s right hand — would become the universal go-to signal of contempt in a globalized culture increasingly impoverished of regional gestural variations.
A Step too Far?
These thoughts occurred to me on Tuesday while watching Adele extend the middle finger of her right hand in anger when one of her acceptance speeches at the Brit Awards ceremony was cut short. As poshsophie commented on the BBC online’s report of this story, “Funny how when the tennis or football overrun, no one complains ...” Funny, poshsophie, and possibly sexist too. My money says women get silenced before their time on TV much more often than men do. And funny too that Adele was cut short so that Blur could perform and witter endlessly in accepting their Venerable Rock Bores award or whatever it was.
“She was right in the middle of giving an emotional acceptance speech about how she was proud to be flying the flag for Britain,” wailed the Daily Mail. “So when she was interrupted so Brit awards host James Corden could introduce Blur, Adele didn’t take too kindly.” What’s striking about this report is that the Mail all but endorses Adele’s rude gesture because, surely, she’s too big a deal for the Mail to apply its normal strictures about rudeness.
What was most extraordinary about this incident was that the focus of the outrage was not on the gesture but on the affront to Adele. “We would like to apologize to Adele for the interruption,” said an ITV spokesman — rather than, presumably, to viewers for having gestural filth flung at their pop kids. On Twitter, fans were more outraged by the abbreviation of her, frankly, dull speech (she’s many wonderful things but Dorothy Parker isn’t one of them) than, say, the tragedy in Homs.