Kress and the Missing Interpretant

THE CONCEPT OF LITERACY has being shifting from a purely linguistic scope to a more broad and inclusive definition. Literacy, according to the New London group (Cazden, C. 1996) and to Günther Kress (2003, 2005), should not exclusively stand for linguistic related skills, but also for meaning making in the context of a given mode. Mode, in this context, has to be understood as the existing resources for representation (Kress, G.R. 2005), which include the linguistic ones (speech writing, but image, sound, and other resources too).

As a result of this epistemological transformation, this approach to the concept of literacy enables the emergence of multiple literacies, at least as many as modes exist; and with it, the possibility of discuss other topics, like the existence of different genres within non-linguistic modes, for example.

Within this new frame, literacy passed from being a structured set of tasks to be learned to the acquisition of knowledge in the social context by different means; or in other words, a concept before structured from a linguistic perspective was broadened by the inclusion of a semiotic viewpoint (Halliday, M.A.K. 1985; Kress, G.R. 2003), a transformation marked by the passage from the letter to the sign in its broader definition, as a unit of meaning.

According to this new angle, probably one of the most productive ways of defining a sign is the one proposed by Kress, who recognizes the existence of two semiotic perspectives: Ferdinand the Saussures’ dichotomous model that defines sign as the relation between the signified (that that means) and the signifier (the meaning of that); and Charles Peirce’s triadic, more complex model that defines sign as the relation between object (that to be represented), representamen (that that represents) and interpretant (that that enables meaning) (2003, p. 31-32). Saussure developed the dichotomous sign theory within a linguistic vision that didn’t considered the language in use as pertinent for this discipline, taking the social context out of the formula (Culler, J. D. 1976). Peirce instead, developed the triadic sign including the knowledge and experiences of the interpreter within the sign itself, the “vehicle of meaning” (Deledalle, G. 2000, p.38): the interpretant.

In visual-oriented disciplines like graphic design or advertising, the prevailing semiotic model is Pierce’s one. This makes sense given the diversity and complex nature of images, and the native multimodality of design. Just to mention one example, it is common for visual messages to create signs (and meaning) based not only on the presence of a given object but on its absence; and it is impossible to get meaning from the absence (or even to represent it) when the context is not pointing to that absence. We can notice the same situation in music. It was Mozart who said that “The music is not in the notes, but in the silences between them”, but silence itself can only be defined as the absence of sound or a similar noun.

Both Kress (2003) and Bolter (2001) address the dominance of image over text as the main mode of meaning and communication. But instead of fully embracing Peirce’s semiotic model, Kress chose to define sign according to his own version of Saussure’s model, modifying the arbitrary nature of sassurean sign to a “motivated” one. He accepted though, to take “Peirce’s iconic sign as the model of all relations of signs to their referents” (Kress, G. R. 2003, p. 32). It is possible to assume that Kress did so because the iconic sign is the only one that keeps a close and obvious relation between the object and its representation, it is the only one that it is not completely arbitrary, according to Peirce. By doing this, he gave a solid ground for mode’s affordances theory, relating the affordance of the mode to the object and its representation, and not to the interpreter or its knowledge.

However, not every sign is an icon. An icon is a close representation of the object; for example, a photograph of an apple is a highly iconic sign. But what happens then with symbolic and completely conventional images that had no resemblance with the object? or with the representation of abstract concepts? Like using an apple to represent original sin and the same object to represent the brand of a computer company.

I am of course aware that I do not have the authority to question Kress’ approach, and that this can only be taken as a personal opinion, but I do think that it is not necessary to modify Peirce’s theory to justify the affordance of a particular mode, if that’s what he was really looking for. I think that is in the relation between the object, its representation, and the interpretant where the modes’ affordances lie; in the pragmatic level of semioses following Pierce’s model—the level in which what signs are used for is defined (Nadin 1988, p. 271).

And finally, I think that it is very important for the “cultural diversity” element in the New London Group multiple literacies theory (and particularly for digital literacies) to accept the contextual component of the sign as an immanent part of it, as culture itself is context.

This is not a question of theories’ integrity. Peirce’s interpretant is what brings interpreter’s experience to the sign, is the answer to the following questions: Whom are we addressing this sign to? What do they know that we can use for making meaning for them? And how is that experience shaping the sign itself? These are important issues for literacies in general, but are definitively crucial problems for digital literacy, probably the must complex and rich of meanings of the existing ones.



Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Taylor & Francis.

Cazden, C., Cope, B., Fairclough, N., Gee, J., Kalantzis, M., Kress, G., . . . Nakata, M. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Culler, J. D. (1976). Saussure. Harvester Press.

Deledalle, G. (2000). Charles S. peirce’s philosophy of signs: Essays in comparative semiotics. Indiana University Press.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Hasan, R. (1985). Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective Deakin University.

Kress, G. R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. Taylor & Francis Group.

Kress, G. R. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition; Special Issue on the Influence of Gunther Kress’ Work, 22(1), 5-22.

Nadin, M. (1988). Interface design: A semiotic paradigm. Semiotica, 69(3-4), 269-302.


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