Writing. Design. Social Change.

Posts tagged ‘kress’

Wysocki, Anne Frances. “awaywithwords: On the Possibilities in Unavailable Designs.Computers and Composition 22.1 (2005): 55-62.

In this article Wysocki seeks to find what is gained and what is lost in communicative practices and is an extension of Kress’ article “Gains and Losses.” Specifically she focuses on how the digital age has changed our awareness of the visuality of texts. She reflects on our material choices in writing and how those choices can in/form us. She states: “I have learned in the process of developing communications that it is always worth asking how our materials have acquired the constraints they have and hence why, often, certain materials and designs are not considered available for certain uses” (Wysocki 2005: 56). Asking about our constraints, our assumptions “can help us understand how material choices in producing communications articulate to social practices we may not otherwise with to reproduce” (56).

This article is helpful in two ways:

1) It discusses the push toward a more rhetorical focus on teaching new media: Wysocki engages Kress’s scholarship on word and image and agrees with his call to promote a more rhetorical focus on teaching. As Kress writes: “In this social and cultural environment, with these demands for communication of these materials, for that audience, with these resources, and given these interests of mine, what is the design which best meets these requirements?”

2) It discusses another trend—the theme of design: “As the New London Group described the design process, communicators draw on available designs in designing (which includes ‘reading, seeing, and listening (New London Group 2000: 22) which involves re-presenting and recontextualizing available designs in order to develop the redesigned, which is always a “transformed meaning,” “founded in historically and culturally received patterns of meaning” (New London Group 200: 23). It would seem appropriate to link this with Kostelnick’s Shaping Information. Wysocki sys: “this process can imply certain circularity, with the redesigned then becoming itself an available design for the next go-round.” (Wysocki 60).  

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Kress, Gunther R., and Theo Van Leeuwen. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London, New York: Arnold; Oxford University Press, 2001.

Kress and Leeuwen’s Multimodal Discourse outlines a “theory of communication” for interactive multimedia. As we move from a mono-modal to multimodal culture lines are blurred between modes and media of communication. The authors claim that what is needed is a theory which describes what happens in sites of practice: for example, when designers freely move between different modes and media. So, the question the authors ask throughout the book is: how do people use communicative modes and media in actual, concrete, interactive instances of communicative practice? Also of note is the authors definition of mode: “a mode is that material resource which is used in recognisably stable ways as a means of articulating discourse” (25); a mode is the abstract organization of specific material drawn into semiosis” (27). In their view modes always have meaning where some media actually contribute no meaning to the text. (!)

While this book doesn’t deal explicitly with the aesthetic, it does devise a theory of discourse in which color plays a role equal to language. The book opens the door for these sometimes overlooked, sometimes considered intangible modes of meaning, such as color and affect.  The authors state: “In our view, pleasure (or un-pleasures) are always (though not always to the same extent) attached to meanings, and a vital aspect of communication. Communication never just ‘communicates’, ‘represents,’ and ‘expresses’, it also always and at the same time affects us. The two cannot be separated. Even when communication seeks to do the opposite, the very fact of negating materiality affects us–by failing to engage us affectively” (71). Thus, for my purposes, the most important aspect of this book is how the authors stress that “meaning is made in many different ways, always in the different modes and media which are co-present in a communicational ensemble” (110). The key point here is that meaning is made in a multiplicity of modes and media AND meaning occurs at different places within these. They stress that in every mode of the multimodal, there is communicative “work” being done, with all the available representational forms and such work is always meaningful.


Jewitt, Carey, and Gunther R. Kress. Multimodal Literacy. New York: P. Lang, 2003.

“An explicit assumption in much multimodal work is that language is partial” (3). As multimodal theorists believe that there are always may modes in a communicational ensemble, the meaning of the message is distributed across all of these. The authors also explain “each mode is partial in relation to the whole of the meaning” (3) In their search for a better understanding of the multimodal, the authors ask: “What do we need to understand about the facilities offered by new communication technologies, in their configuration of modes and users of the media? What do we need to understand about new forms of message arrangements on the ‘page’ or the ‘screen’ and their role in learning?” (4) The authors here bring a social semiotic theory to multimodal theories of literacy, a theory which inherently emphasizes the “role of people in meaning-making , to their social agency” (4).

The authors believe: “social semiotics views the agency of socially situated humans as central to sign-making. “From a social semiotic perspective, people use resources that are available to them in the specific socio-cultural environments in which they act to create signs, and in using them, they change these resources…signs are constantly newly made, in a process in which the signified (what is to be meant) is realised through the most apt signifier (that which is available to give retaliation to that which is to be meant) in a specific social context” (10).  And reading, according to a social semiotic theory, is also about sign making, but here, the process is reversed: “The process starts not from a person wanting to signify to the world outside, but from wanting to represent signs in the world outside (made by some other) to their inner self “ (13).

I find the authors discussion and research studies on meaning making and learning (how learning is a multimodal process) very informative and useful. What is needed, however, is a more thorough discussion of a social semiotic theory of the multimodal.

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Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Kress writes in the preface that we have come to a moment in the long history of writing when four momentous changes are taking place simultaneously: social, economic, communicational, and technological. The combined effects of these are so profound that it is justifiable to speak of a revolution in the landscape of communication” (Kress, 2003, 9). He foretells that “the combined effects on writing of the dominance of the mode of image and of the medium of the screen will produce deep changed in the forms and functions of cultural and bodily engagement with the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge (1).  He goes so far as to state that: “It is possible to see writing becoming subordinated to the logic of the visual in many or all of its uses. Kress claims that new spaces and new strategies will be needed. “There is a consequence for notions of meaning: if the meaning of a message is realised, ‘spread across,’ several modes, we need to know on what basis this spreading is happens, what principles are at work. Equally, in reading, we need to gather meaning from all the modes which are co-present in a text, and new principles of reading will be at work. Making meaning in writing and making meaning in reading both have to be newly though about” (35). He further explains: “The means of dealing with meaning are different; we need to understand how meanings are made as signs in distinct ways in specific modes, as the result of the interest of the maker of the sign, and we have to find ways of understanding and describing the integration of such meanings across modes, into coherent wholes, into texts” (37).

Kress delves deeply into the changing nature of word and image–in order to show that human engagement with the world is changing.  I believe this is where a useful theory of aesthetic experience can fit. Aesthetic experience does not favor the visual over anything else. Does not favor print over anything else. It is more or less an unhierarchical model of experience. Toward the end of this book Kress explains what is needed is a requisite theory of meaning: “The major task is to imagine the characteristics of a theory which can account for the processes of making meaning in the environments of multimodal representation in multi-mediated communication, of cultural plurality and of social and economic instability.” This theory will look different from ones of the past. It will not assume language as its foundation. Instead, the centrality of language  “will be replaced with an understanding that modes of representation are used in relation to a multiplicity of factors, such as the sign-maker’s sense of what are the apt modes of representing, given a certain audience and therefore specific relations between sign-maker and audience. Out of this awareness of the always rhetorical task of communication arises the arrangement of modes which are in play in a message/text.” (169).

Also, he comments on the shift to design: “The notion of competence will give way to that of interested design: …Design, by contrast, starts from the interest and the intent of the Designer to act in a specific way in a specific environment, to act with a set of available resources  and to act with an understanding of what the task at hand is, in relation to a specific audience. Design is prospective,future-oriented,: in this environment, with these (multiple) resources, and out of my interests now to act newly I will shape a message. In design, resources are transformed in any number of ways–whether in new combinations of modes or in the constant transformative action by signmakers in producing newly made signs” (169).

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Kress, Gunther. “Gains and Losses: New Forms of Texts, Knowledge, and Learning.” Computers and Composition 22.1 (2005): 5-22.

In this article, Gunther Kress examines the affordances and the limitations of moving from a primarily print-centric culture to an image-centric culture. Kress  relies on  social semiotic theory to account for meaning-making. Kress says: “Words are (relatively) empty entities-in a semiotic account they are signifiers to be filled with meaning rather than signs full of meaning, and the task of the reader is to fill these relatively vacant entities with her or his meaning. This is the task we call interpretation, namely interpreting what sign the writer may have intended to make with this signifier” (Kress, 2005, 7) The point here, and elsewhere in his examples  is that (in contrast to even a decade ago) meaning is now designed by the experiencer /interpreter/ reader as much as by the writer/creator. Importantly, as the once dominant modes of speech and writing are pushed to a more marginal position, and are being replaced by image and more cinematic means of representation, practices of reading and writing are changing. As Kress claims: “Reading has to be rethought given that the commonsense of what reading is was developed in the era of unquestioned dominance of writing, in constellation with the unquestioned dominance of the medium of the book” (Kress  17). As a sign of the times, Kress foresees that “Reading as taking meaning and making meaning from many sources of information, from many sign-systems, will become the new common sense” (Kress 17). This is a vastly different notion of reading than that of “decoding” — what has been the dominant model. Kress states that “The new constellation of image and screen–where screen, the contemporary canvas, is dominated by the logic of the image–means that the practices of reading becoming dominant are the the practices derived from the engagement with the image and/or depiction in which the reader designs the meaning from materials made available on the screen–and by transference back to the traditional media–on the new kinds of pages, which are now also organized on these principles and read in line with them” (Kress 18). Obviously, Kress’ theory of the “new reading” has an aesthetic component. The new “meaning making and meaning taking” has an aesthetic component. He hints at this but doesn’t make it explicit until the last sentence…

I have to ask: why does the theory of the “designs of meaning” have to be contained within the field of new media/digital environments? Don’t actors design meaning from all the materials made available to them in the world (not just the screen)? Commonsense would say they do. Kress states that we “cannot continue with existing theories of meaning given the facts of the changes in the social, economic, and cultural domain. At the moment, our theories come from the era dominated by notions of conventions and competence, whereas we need theories apt for an era of radical instability” (Kress, 2005, 20). As we have firmly acknowledged a crisis of stable representation–Kress claims that “we need the notion of design, which says: In this social and cultural environment, with these demands for these materials, for that audience, with these resources, and given these interests of mine, what is the design that meets these requirements? Design focuses forward; it assumes that resources are never entirely apt but will need to be transformed in relation to all the contingencies of this environment now and the demands made….(Kress, 2005, 20). Finally, in the last sentence of this article, Kress mentions the aesthetic. He states:

“And if we took our cue not from conventionally established authority but, equipped with necessary aesthetic and ethical navigational aids, we were to establish authority and at times even knowledge for ourselves, would that not be a preferable position?” (Kress 21).

This seems like an important point, from an important theorist. It seems important to situate my argument within this perceived need: developing a better understanding of  multimodal, multifaced meaning-making. To develop a better way to “navigate” aesthetic meaning-making (writing, reading, experiencing).

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