The New Media Parlour

“Multimodality” by Gunther Kress, Part 1

I have mixed feelings about reading scholarly work. Sometimes I’ll come across a sentence or explanation that breaks down exactly how I think something should be laid out, I want to read it out loud to whomever will listen (usually my cat) and tell them “THIS is what new media truly stands for!” Other times I think it’s a little excessive to take five pages to explain why a 6 year-old drawing of circles signifies a car.

With that preface, there were quite a few parts to Kress’ analysis of multimodality that resonated with me, even if he was a bit repetitive in his arguments. He begins by laying out the nature of contemporary communication culture. Kress notes that there are quite a few areas of contemporary communication that need to move beyond past definitions, including authorship and page design.

He explains how the idea of authorship is changing as content is shared online more easily. The structure, he explains, is more horizontal, open, participatory. I love the idea of authorship being more open to anyone who wishes to participate; that huge media and publishing conglomerates don’t control what ends up in front of readers. Yet there is still a stigma around open source authorship and shared information. “In all domains of communication these rearrangements in power can be conceptualized as a shift…Authorship in particular is in urgent need of theorizing. The debate here is marked by a profound incomprehension and hence hostility, which is evident in terms such as ‘plagiarism’ and ‘cutting & pasting.’”(p. 21)

Kress makes a great observation on how different generations are used to reading a page of content. Older readers are used to text on a page, columns, and a path to follow. Younger generations, who are used to the buffet of content found on websites, will seek out the information they are interested in and ignore what they don’t care about. “Unlike traditional page, designed with a given order/arrangement for the reader’s engagement, this site – a homepage, which has visitors rather than readers – is given an ordering by the reader’s interests through their ordering-as-design. The readers’ interests determine how they engage with this page.” (p. 38)

The real meat of what Kress discusses in this first half of the book is that any communicational understanding needs to be framed within the culture that is being understood. And with that, the person attempting to understand and make conclusions on the semiotic platform of a culture must only theorize to the extent that they understand. He digs deeper into this idea with his thorough explanation of the process of communication between a person and their audience. There are two sides to communication, the rhetor and the interpreter. “The social is present twice in this framework: through the interest of the rhetor, who acts with a strong sense of the social characteristics of the audience and their relations to the rhetor; and through the social location and interest of interpreters…Each brings their cultural/semiotic resources and values.” (p. 45) Communication is this complex dance between two people, each has to consider the contextual culture that the other is entrenched in order to get most full meaning from the message.

Over and over again Kress emphasizes that communications and semiotics cannot be analyzed or understood without acknowledging the cultural principles that are at play. He brings this idea home in chapter 4, when he ties this theory into semiotics to create the title theory of “social-semiotic theory of multimodality”. “In a social-semiotic account of meanings, individuals, with their social histories, socially shaped, located in social environments, using socially made, culturally available resources, are agentive and generative in sign-making and communication…Signs are always newly made in social interaction.” (p. 54) In order for people to interact and understand each other’s messages, there must be some understanding of the other’s culture, history, and social environment.

An inspired moment for me, as a designer still trying to find her place, was in the first chapter, when he explains his definition of design. Design illustrates “a move away from anchoring communication in convention as social regulation. Design focuses on an individual’s realization of their interest in their world.” (p. 6) Although there are principles that we study in design classes, design is not something you can teach. Truly good design comes when you back burner the general principles that you’ve learned and work with what your personal principles are, how you think design should be framed.


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