Posts filed under ‘Multimodal Literacy’

The truth about the content

Guess what! This summer I was on vacation in my home town, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and, guess  who was presenting a conference in the school where I took my PhD: Gunther Kress.FALE

No way I would miss it! In the conference at the Faculdade de Letras, UFMG, Kress presented a definition for learning in which, for those of us who have been following his work, it is possible to notice theoretical moves from previous ones. In Belo Horizonte, Kress defined learning as

“The transformative engagement with an aspect of the world which is the focus of attention of an individual; on the basis of principles brought by her or him to that engagement; leading to a transformation of the individuals semiotic/conceptual resources”

Now compare to the definition I quoted in my last post. Learning can be seen as:

 “the individual’s agentive selection from, engagement with and transformation of the world according to their principals” (Kress, 2007: 37)

FALE - UFMGSo, he’s added interest as a trigger for transformation, but not of any transformation, for the transformation of internal conceptions. What Kress is doing here is to semiotize cognition, that is, he’s using the same principles he applies to think about external, tangible representations to think about internal, mental ones.

 The other day I presented a seminar in the research group I’m working at, LATE, and in the audience I had people from psychology and pedagogy. My experience is that one problem some of them will experience with multimodality is that they tend to see content as something independent from its realization – as many linguists still do. We took the water cycle, for example, and someone said:

“The water cycle is the water cycle, content is content regardless the way you represent it.”

My view is that the water cycle will be one thing or another very different thing depending on the way it is represented, the semiotic modes used to do it, the media used in the process, the people who represent it and what time of history this representation is made. Some of my colleagues argued there is something the water cycle is, its truth. My point is, however, no matter how human beings try to access that truth, they will do that through representations, external or internal ones, which are always interest driven and only close to what reality is about. Besides, who knows if we really know “the truth about the water cycle”… I mean, what if tomorrow scientists find out something not known to the day… Actually, a scientist’s understanding of what the water cycle is is surely different of mine, and even if he knew everything that is possible to know about it nowadays, nobody knows what he could find out tomorrow.

gunther kressI came home after the seminar thinking about so many people who did not live to send photographs instantly over their phones, to call other continents for free on their computers or to know the sea urchin and the human genome have so much in common. Maybe I misinterpret the theme, but if the content were always the content, independently of its representations, some kind of eternal truth, either it would never change or we would never have access to it. I think the option of semiotizing cognition is an interesting one. And I am aware it is what it is, an option: as interest driven and limited as any other form of representation is.

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November 7, 2008 at 10:36 pm Leave a comment

Multimodality and Literacy

Hi again! What I have to share with you today is a reading I have made of Kress’ chapter Meaning, Learning and Representation in a Social Semiotic Approach to Multimodal Communication[1].
You know I have been working as a lecturer in New Technologies Applied to Education and issues related to literacy and multimodality have been redesigning my research interests lately.

In this chapter, Kress points out that in the broad cultural economic scenario, “neo-liberal, post-modern societies and states do not, cannot and actually often do not wish to provide frameworks for ethical principals”. This has direct consequences on the making of identity. In the past, identity formation depended on an individual’s integrations into institutional, national and economical structures. Nowadays identity formation is much more related to participation (or no participation) in consumption. These remarks echo van Leeewven’s description of change from class division to stile of life. Kress however wants to highlight that the only ethical guidelines which inform identity formation through consumption are those the market might offer.

Kress identifies two main areas in which the changes in the broad cultural economic scenario described above influences the world of representation: first, the means we use to disseminate our messages; secondly, the means we use for making representation. If we focus on the means used in the new world of representation, we see that for a growing number of people, access to the new media changes authoring into a more usual and common process, and, as a consequence, a less powerful one. This represents an important shift in the “ordering of the world”, because world representations change from being “ordered for the reader” into being “designed by the reader”. In other words, readers, or at least some of them, become authors and authors loose monopoly over representation.

If we focus on the means we use for making representations instead, we find that learning how to represent means developing an orientation in and to the world that transforms as well as naturalizes certain logics. Kress calls this orientation a “social epistemology” which informs the different affordances allowed by the different modes. Semiotic modes are governed by general principles, like prominence, for example, but each mode has a certain potential for meaning production, as they have different logics – there are time based modes, like speech, music, dance and gestures, for example, and spatial based modes, like image. The choices I make when I select a mode of representation, says Kress, “forces me into specific epistemological commitments” (Kress, 2007: 26). The author goes on to say that a consequence of constant training in the use of a certain mode and its affordances is the shaping of one’s attention and epistemological orientation in a certain way. As image becomes a progressively more prominent mode of representation, displacing writing (Jewitt, 2006), conflicts may arise between, on the one hand, students, natives of this new world of representation, and those who make the curricula and devise pedagogies still having in mind linguistic accounts alone as a theoretical basis for the understanding of communication and subjectivity.

For Kress, “learning can be seen as the individual’s agentive selection from, engagement with and transformation of the world according to their principals” (Kress, 2007: 37). The choice of one theory of learning or another will have consequences on teachers’ ordering of the world: a world that can be ordered for the reader/student or designed by the reader/student. The fundamental question is whether educators will engage with a theory of learning which attends to the meanings of those who have power or a theory of learning which attends to the meanings which result from principled engagement with the world.

What theories of learning are we engaging with as teachers? What theories of learning have we been given the opportunities to engage with as learners? Each of us has a certain learning history that (partially?) makes who we are, what we know and the way we move in the world.
[1] Kress, Gunther. (2007). Meaning, Learning and Representation in a Social Semiotic Approach to Multimodal Communication. P. 15-39. In: McCabe, Anne; O’Donnell, Mick; Whittaker, Rachel. (ed) Advances in Language and Education. Continuum: London.

May 24, 2008 at 9:37 am Leave a comment

Get ready for what is coming up!

December 13, 2007 at 8:22 am Leave a comment

Interest shapes the world: the motivated sign

First time ever in Barcelona, Professor Gunther Kress, head of the Centre for Multimodal Research at the University of London, kindly accepted the invitation from the Critical Literacy research group at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra to present the seminars “The contemporary social world and an apt theory of communication: Social Semiotics and Multimodality” and “Rethinking politics and representation: from critique to design”. I was pleased to attend the first one and listen to the insights of one the most prominent researchers in Social Semiotics nowadays. Professor Kress spoke to an attentive small group and some of his remarks were as inspiring as provocative. For example, we know social semioticians regard semiotic resources as bearing a motivated relationship between its material (realizational) parts, let’s put it this way, and the meaning they convey. That is simple to understand if we take a song, a peace of poetry, a film or an oral interaction. Kress, however, told us this assumption holds also for very basic resources, like individual words, for instance. This way, Saussure’s arbitrary relationship between signifier/signified is find to be wrong. Every relationship between form and meaning is motivated and influenced by its social cultural context. The fact we can’t trace the history of each word back to the moment when they were baptized doesn’t mean it was an arbitrary relation since the beginning.

Kress tries to theorize the semiotic work as any other kind of work. Like any other kind of activity, he thinks, semiotic work produces change; change produces meaning; then semiotic work produces meaning. Kress invited us to think about a person who works in her garden with some tools. As this person works, the worker herself will change (her body is probably to get sweaty) and the garden will change (more flowers planted). We can also expand the metaphor and think she may need new kinds of tools as she finds new needs in the garden and if she is an inventive one, she may try to produce herself a tool to solve “problems” during work. For Kress, there is no difference between semiotic work and any other kind. Then, producing meaning changes both the producer and the world.
Kress also told us interest frames the way we represent the world and that representation is always partial. What we do when we put form and meaning together is choosing the best possible representation available of that we wish to represent, but there’s never a perfect match. “We’re always saying things which are just close enough to what we mean”, said Kress. He went even further to say he wouldn’t draw a clear boundary between us (humans) and other mammalians. This idea is surely related to his belief the process of meaning production changes the producer herself. To some extent, we humans think the way we think because of the history of semiotic work we have been engaged in as a race.
One question which arose during the seminar was about how to identify modes in a multimodal text: visual? Oral? Are these modes? What are modes? According to Kress, modes are any given resources a given society has available to produce semiotic resources, in other words, the range of signifiers or realizational materials someone can use to convey, add or change meaning. For Kress, intonation and tone of voice are modes, while sound waves are a medium. The consequences of this line of reasoning are that even syntax and lexis can be considered modes, like typography and colour, but also that every single text is multimodal and that there are more evident types of modes, like colour, and less evident types, like syntax.

Well, if every representation process is always partial, interpretation is even further from the original meaning of something. It is a real miracle we get to understand each other, isn’t it? Actually, Kress regards reading as making hypothesis. This account you are reading of the time professor Kress dedicated to us in Barcelona is partial, interest driven and may only be close enough to what I meant to say – ¡Imagine to what Kress really told us! But it is definitely an account that above all tries to share the amazement at that we do when we do some semiotic activity and the enthusiasm for researching it. Hope my work changes you as much as it changes me.

October 2, 2007 at 8:54 pm 2 comments


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