Gains and Losses

Gains and Losses

I had never heard of Gunther Kress until a month ago. Alan Gross, soon to be my advisor, mentioned that I really should look at Reading Images. The book hadn’t arrived before I traveled to Minnesota, but another of his titles, Multimodal Discourse, did. I read it in a hurry while I was in Michigan, and didn’t like it much at all. It seemed downright retrograde compared to most of the scholarship I’ve been reading about text and image. When I got to Minnesota, Art Walzer mentioned Kress too. I figured I should do my best to give it fair consideration, but it was hard—I really didn’t like his approach at all. It seemed far too complex, with meaningless categories (okay for print culture, but ill-suited to electronic discourse).

My primary critique was twofold: Kress is an essentialist (words and pictures are essentially different) and Multimodal Discourse insists that production and distribution were essentially different phenomenon (okay, I’ll agree as far as print goes but I don’t think that really applies to electronic discourse). I mentioned this to Gross, and he granted that it was a valid critique. When I got home, Reading Images had arrived. It explained a lot about his approach—Kress’s approach is sociological, and based on Halliday’s functional linguistics. As an alternative to Chomsky’s transformational approach, Halliday felt that grammar was socially determined. Researching Halliday a bit, it seemed clear that this sort of approach is an alternate (top-down rather than bottom-up) way of looking at language. Both perspectives might be valid— they do not invalidate each other, they just look at the problem of grammar from two different directions. But still, Kress’s approach just didn’t click for me.

When I got to C’s, I discovered that Kress was a featured speaker. His presentation was called “Gains and Losses: New Forms of Texts, Knowledge, and Learning.” I was impressed by the man far more than I was impressed by his ideas. In the question and answer period after his lecture, other people raised the same questions I had weeks before—can we really generalize about texts and images in this fashion?

Kress’s key points can be summarized fairly easily.

  1. Texts rely on a temporal element.

    Narrative is the basic form of written and spoken discourse, and changes in order effect the way we make meaning from language. (true enough for English, but not necessarily true for all language.

  2. Images rely on spatial relations.

    Scale, in particular, makes us draw conclusions regarding the relative importance of pictorial elements. Kress used the example of a children’s drawing where the father was drawn taller than the mother, though in real life the father was short (a psychological, rather than strictly linguistic reading of the image).

  3. Images and text communicate completely different forms of information.

    This is where the essentialism really kicks in—it is impossible to translate information from one form to another; they are incommensurate. (I really disagree with this—the triangular play button on a tape deck communicates exactly the same information as the legend which reads “play,” that is if we are equally skilled in both visual and verbal languages.)

It is these points which the audience took issue with. I felt sort of vindicated. But then Kress replied that he was merely trying to start a conversation about these issues. He admitted that his principles were conjectural, and perhaps a bit impossible to support. I felt better when he admitted that. But, the other content of his lecture was much more defensible. Using the example of two responses of a elementary school science assignment—one with a literal drawing of what was seen, and one with a drawing crafted to match the verbal description of what students were expected to see Kress pointed out the differing perceptions of what science was. One contained a verbal description targeted at describing exactly what was done so that someone might replicate it, and the other was a narrative describing exactly what happened when they tried to do it. Neither student was essentially “wrong” in the way they did the assignment—they merely had different perceptions of what constituted scientific knowledge.

Kress argues that the shift to more visual modes of communication also shifts our perception of what knowledge is (and I wholeheartedly concur). His top down social approach, however, by necessity means that must work with “normative” conceptions of what images and words do. After thinking about it for a week now, I can really see why he makes the assertions he does. He isn’t arguing that things have to be this way, only that they are this way.

Most of his lecture is contained in the chapter excerpt “Multimedia, Multimodality, and Genre,” taken from his book Literacy in the New Media Age, which forms the second essay in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World. I just ordered that one too, and I’m actually looking forward to it. Kress had some other points worth thinking about, particularly concerning conceptions of audience in the new digital landscape.

Kress contends that traditional print authors had a clear picture of who their audiences were, and what their needs were. However, in digital discourse, we have no such luxury. This is why the multiple paths possible in hypertext are so important. The audience is free to construct their own text by choosing their own path. The use of graphic elements adds to a sort of “shorthand” where language can be simplified, creating an overall gain in comprehensibility for an increasingly incomprehensible audience. That’s why he called his lecture “Gains and Losses”— the lack of certainty we have now is offset by gains in the methods available to deal with that uncertainty.

I was actually, despite all my reservations, quite impressed.