although this gesture is not as widespread as it once was, nevertheless in pangnirtung today one can still find the ‘typical’ inuit handshake. we meet. we greet. we reach out our paws and touch. we shake once. we let go. once and only once. while ii and ahka is a linguistic facial gesture that can take place between strangers, the handshake is a gesture between friends, perhaps a gesture that inaugurates friendship itself. in this latter sense (as inaugural), it may then be a marker more general, of community relation rather than friendship. the commonplace practice of going around a room, greeting and shaking hands with everyone one encounters seems not to acknowledge existing or potential friendship so much as a more genial, less intensive, membership in community. here a more direct instantiation of face to face culture is inscribed.
in this gestural moment, what is absent deserves notice. what is absent is the repetition, the shaking of hands or the danger of shaking hands past some appropriate duration in order to mark the rough social distance or nearness of participants: the shaking shaking hands that say ‘i’m really really so very very glad to meet you I just want to keep this moment going on and on because that way you’ll know how so very very very glad I really really really am’. what is absent in the inuit handshake is the flourish, the repetition that lies: ‘i’m shaking your hand so much so you won’t know that the contract you’re signing is going to dispossess you.’
the pangnirtung handshake leaves no room for the flourish and in this case no room for nuance or degree. it marks a social binary: friend or not friend (or part of the community, not part of the community). depending on where one stands in that binary one can work through the nuances that will follow. but friend or not friend is the starting point, and the starting point is marked by a direct gesture: the handshake. more will not make or mark better or stronger or closer friends. and once one starts on the path to more than one handshake one is caught in a deep ethical dilemma: how and when can I stop. ‘did I shake her hand as much as I did the dean from cornell? oh dear.’
marcel proust, whose letters appear to me to be vastly underrated and who had more than one thing to say in them about friendship, managed to end every letter with a flourish, a unique gesture marking his particular affection for the addressee (1983). we humble scribes who follow, can we measure up? pangnirtung forestalls the creation of this problem with a clearly — forcefully — circumscribed limitation.