In his attempt to examine the changing landscape of representation and communication, Gunther Kress’s (2005) article titled, “Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and Learning” raises many discussion points that are helpful for analyzing this field. His primary method of analysis is to setup dichotomies that imply competition between them with examples that include: semiotic signifiers and signs, representation and communication, display and story, and books and websites. While making these comparisons is useful, Kress tends to approach them from an either-or perspective in what I would suggest is a false dichotomy. Whereas it is apparent that the landscape here is changing from textual modes of representation to visual ones (often accompanied by auditory ones), I will describe how the latter is not supplanting the former, but enhancing or remediating it.
Bolter (2001) reminds us that, “[r]emediation can be, perhaps always is, mutual: older technologies remediate newer ones out of both enthusiasm and apprehension” and so we must consider the possibility, even probability, that textual modes affect visual ones and result in a hybridized mode with a synergistic effect. This is evident in the convergent appearance of websites, textbooks and magazines. The sense of urgency that brings with it the “Scylla of nostalgia and pessimism and the Charybdis of unwarranted optimism” (Kress, 2005) arises out of the centuries and millennia over which the modern text media have been remediating, picture writing, hieroglyphics, papyrus scrolls, manuscripts and other early text media. The remediation occurring in this late age of print (Bolter, 2001) is occurring over a few generations or less.
Turning to semiotics, on which he relies heavily, Bolter contrasts signifiers as symbols devoid of meaning in themselves and requiring interpretation with signs in which their meaning is clear and apparent. He continues to describe words as signifiers that require interpretation as to their meanings intended by the author or enunciator. While this description appears satisfactory (Martin & Ringham, 2006; Streeter, n.d.), he creates ambiguity in implying, however unintentionally, that images are akin to signs and then explains that in common sense, “meaning in language [i.e. text] is clear and reliable by contrast, with image for instance, which, in that same commonsense, is not solid or clear” before using obscure references to the 1992 Institute of Education prospectus and Simm’s 1946 book “The Boy Electrician” in an attempt to elucidate, which he fails terribly.
Where this unfortunate elucidation eventually leads is to a discussion of the relative power of the author and audience in different media, and more significantly the differences in the number of entry points often seen between multimodal websites and texts. The importance of these differences comes from the greater utility of a resource accessible by more readers in more ways that are pertinent to their life-worlds, as readers of texts become visitors to “pages” (for lack of a better word). This begins to get to the heart of the matter of the changing landscape: that multimodal pages, offer a variety of alternatives to and advantages over the fixed temporal organization of text, and Kress does well to list many of them.
Parallel to the alternatives and advantages offered by the multimodal, is the concept of the addition of tools to think with that the page designer has as well as of those available as a writer of text. Postman (1992) describes how literate societies have additional tools for thinking beyond those of oral societies, and it follows then that the addition of images to the vernacular of a society’s literacy will also bring with it changes to the ways in which its members think. As a result, page designers will need to critically examine their use of the different modes in their compositions so that they may intentionally leverage the affordances offered by their selected modes. Arguably, the intent of any composition is to communicate and do so effectively; however, the choice of how and to what extent pages are designed might greatly affect the extent to which their message is represented and received. By carefully leveraging the affordances of multimodal media, a greater level of depth and complexity, as well as specificity, in communication are possible. But to neglect these is to obfuscate the message, as many have witnessed in poorly designed pages with flashing images, and quantities of unrelated text.
As multimodal design continues to increase its dominance over mono-modal text, the nostalgic can be assured that text is not moving to obscurity but simply succeeding its dominant role, as is evidenced by the popularity of Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games with a generation most accustomed to, and inundated by, the multimodal. The unwarranted optimist warrants restraint in the knowing that visual literacy is a remediation of the textual as well as in the realization that just as poor writing is all too common, so is poor design. The more studious will take advantage of new tools and opportunities afforded by the multimodal to add layers of depth, complexity and universality to their design to enhance representation and communication
Bolter, J. D., (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext and the remediation of print. New York: Routledge.
Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition, 22, 5-22.
Martin, B., and Ringham, F., (2006). Key terms in semiotics. London: Continuum.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New york: Vintage books
Simms, J. W., (1946). The boy electrician. London: Harrap.
Streeter, T., (n.d.), Semiotic Terminology. Retrieved November 8, 2012 from http://www.uvm.edu/~tstreete/semiotics_and_ads/terminology.html
Your analysis of Bolter’s consideration of semiotics is to the point: “He continues to describe words as signifiers that require interpretation as to their meanings intended by the author or enunciator. While this description appears satisfactory (Martin & Ringham, 2006; Streeter, n.d.), he creates ambiguity in implying, however unintentionally, that images are akin to signs and then explains that in common sense, “meaning in language [i.e. text] is clear and reliable by contrast, with image for instance, which, in that same commonsense, is not solid or clear” – and reminded me of Roland Barthes (1977) article ‘The Death of the Author’ where he suggests as you seem to be doing – that the text as it encounters its many readers is endlessly open to interpretation and meaning…like an image.