Writing. Design. Social Change.

Posts tagged ‘semiotic’

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. “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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