Kress, Gunther. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: Routledge, 2010. (197 pages)
- Where meaning is the issue
In proposing the social-semiotic theory of multimodality, Kress places value on how meaning is made. Simply, his argument refers to the multiple ways meaning is made with a variety of visual, linguistic, material resources. And the construction of meaning is constantly re-made through social interactions.
He begins by discussing globalization, which “refers not only to financial globalization but to conditions which make it possible for characteristics of one place to be present and active in another—whether economic or cultural or technical” (5). Here, Kress refers to the impact of global factors into local contexts, and how those factors encounter locally present factors. Globalization, then, becomes an interesting point of discussion, especially considering the social nature of meaning-making in his theory: “These principles and dispositions are articulated in communities in the ceaseless process of social (inter)action. Hence the principles and dispositions take particular forms, as the result of the specific social concerns of a community” (9-10). He refers, then, to the concept of blending of and framing of resources. Resources are “constantly remade; never willfully, arbitrary, anarchically but precisely, in line with what I need, in response to some demand, some ‘prompt’ now… Semiotic resources are socially made and therefore carry the discernible regularities of social occasions, events, and hence a certain stability; they are never fixed, let alone rigidly fixed” (8) For Kress, there is no meaning without framing: cultures make meaning possible by providing the semiotic resources for framing signs.
He also refers frequently to the concept of interest as a motivating factor in the creation of signs, writing, compositions. “Humans make signs in which form and meaning stand in a ‘motivated’ relation. These signs are made with very many different means, in very different modes. They are the expression of the interest of socially formed individuals who, with these signs, realize—give outward expression to—their meanings, using culturally available semiotic resources, which have been shaped by the practices of members of social groups and their cultures” (10). He offers these principles of sign-making: (1) signs are conjunctions of form and meaning; (2) conjunction is based around the interest of sign-maker; (3) sign-maker uses culturally available resources.
Kress further distinguishes between society and culture: society refers to human action in social groups. In this way, society refers to the work that produces changes in social orientation and values. “Each of these changes has produced meaning , new meaning. The effects of these changes is to produce cultural resources” (14). Culture, then, refers to the product of this work. Culture is made up the effects and resources made through interaction. Design, then, appears to be a key element of this theory. It “accords recognition to the work of individuals in their social lives and builds that into the theory. In my use of the term, design is about a theory of communication and meaning, based –at least potentially—on equitable participation in the shaping of the social and semiotic world” (6)
Laying this out as a framework, he specifically confronts the monolithic position that language has taken in the study of meaning.
- The social environment of contemporary communication
Kress opens with the aims of a social-semiotic theory of communication:
- That members of communities have access to semiotic and other cultural resources essential to act in their social world on their own behalf and for their benefit.
- That as members of a cohesive community they are able to contribute to common purposes by dealing productively with constantly new cultural, semiotic, and social problems and by designing, representing and communicating their suggested solutions to them.
- That in their social-semiotic actions, members of social groups have a clear sense of the effects of their (semiotic) actions on others and act so as not to impair the potentials for actions of others (18).
His emphasis in this chapter, then, is to chart out the re-distribution of power through new media platforms. Namely, the shift in media has seen a shift toward production and participation who had previously been seen as audience (characterized by consumption) (22). Audience, then, appears to be archaic and derived from previous structures of media consumption. Audience, in its current iteration, can be conceived through a lens of critique, the possibility to challenge and disrupt underlying relations of power. Here, design takes a central role: as Kress writes, “design is a prospective: a means of projecting an individual’s interest into their world with the intent of effect in the future” (23). In other words, design reflects individual interest and is refracted by the participation among multiple audiences. There, then, is a shift in responsibility whereby users must seek information rather than information being brought to them.
Kress also defines knowledge in terms of representation: “knowledge is made and given shape in representation, according to the potentials of modal affordances: the process of representation is identical to the shaping of knowledge. Makers of representations are the shapers of knowledge” (27). This new means of representation (of creating text, the representation of knowledge) places representation at the forefront of discussion. Representational convention becomes on par with content/knowledge being represented. In discussing the representation of knowledge, Kress discusses the rhetor and the designer. The rhetor is marked by the assessment of the social environment; the designer obtains and arrangers the resources. Kress writes, “The absence of secure frames requires of each participant in an interaction that they assess, on each occasion, the social environment, the social relations which obtain in it and the resources available for shaping the communication encounter” (26).
- Communications: shaping the domain of meaning
[i’ll come back to this]