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Editorial Reviews. About the Author. Catherine McDermott is Professor in the School of Design.
Table of contents

This ensures that power of certain kinds is much more difficult to challenge. Such meanings are clearly in the domain of discourse. The banality of the two texts does not exclude discourse as a shaping influence: discourses around taste, identity, a position in life; and they have shaped the signs. Choice leads to selection , and both necessitate acknowledging design as part of a set of theoretical tools, as a means of answering questions such as: What mode is apt here? These are questions of design, themselves deriving from a rhetorical disposition to communication. Design assumes the prior action of the rhetor.

The task of the rhetor is to assess and describe the salient aspects of the environment of communication. The rhetor's questions seek to establish the conditions for communication: who are the participants and what are their characteristics — for instance, are they 7-year-old school children or adult participants in a public debate? What are their relations of power; what are the semiotic requirements from the matter to be communicated — for instance, is it better to show the complexity of an elbow joint in a diagram, or to show it as a 3D model, or to describe it in writing, or to imitate it gesturally, supported by speech?

And there are the rhetor's intent and purposes in communicating. The agency of the rhetor shapes the actions of the designer, whose agency in turn shapes the realization of the rhetor's intent. In that conception, rhetoric is the politics of communication, style is the politics of choice; aesthetics is the politics of style; and ethics is the politics of e valuation.

In a multimodal environment the possibilities for choice and selection multiply well beyond those in a monomodal one. Visitors were invited to participate as couples grandparent and grandchild, friends, married couples , in order for a sense of their interaction with the exhibition to be captured, at least in part. Participants were given wearable voice-recorders; they were given a camera to take whatever images they wished; and they were videoed as they made their way through the exhibition.

They cannot usually exercise over their visitors the kind of power that schools attempt to exercise over their students, whether in relation to communication or to learning. Curators as designers of an exhibition have specific aims and purposes — social, aesthetic or pedagogic, ideological. These are rarely stated overtly in the exhibition, though in interviews with curators or curatorial teams it was clear that much discussion around aims and purposes precedes the construction of an exhibition — discussion framed by the interests of curators, policies of the museum, of governments.

It provides a complex set of signs for the visitors who come to engage with it, and from it they construct for themselves an infinite series of promptings for interpretation. None of the signs, singly or together, provides, by any means, a full account of the meanings made by any of the visitors; and that applies to these two visitors an year-old woman and an year-old boy , but they certainly do give a clear sense of a difference in interest. Signs make the sign-maker's interest and interpretation material and evident; in that sense, the maps-assigns give an insight, hypothetically, into an implicit question: What was the interest?

In the case of Figure 3. In Figure 3. Both are interpretations of the exhibition overall for these visitors; the maps represent an aspect of the knowledge made and of what had been learned by them. His attention had been drawn by a model airplane at a display representing a neolithic campsite uncovered at the site of the present Heathrow airport, as well as by an African mask and some tools and weapons. Figure 3. Is movement more salient as a means of explanation than long written accounts? Are painted scenes more engaging than 3D tableaux?

What effect does lighting have in creating affect and mood? Is the distance at which visitors are able to engage with objects, or whether they are able to touch an object, a significant matter?


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But affect is equally significant in all sites of learning, institutional or not. With all modal resources, discourse, power, forms of knowledge , are constantly at issue. In all this there is another core issue, that of the affordances and logics of modes and their effects, communicationally, in rhetoric, selection and design and in terms of the differential shaping of knowledge in ontology and epistemology. Here is a simple example, on the issue of knowledge and mode , from a science classroom for 13—year-olds. She takes a felt-tip pen and draws something, as in Figure 3.

In drawing the image, the young woman is faced with implicit questions, which she had not faced in making her spoken comment. She has to decide what shape the cell -wall is; what the nucleus looks like; how large it is; whether it is a circle or a dot; and she has to make a decision as to where in the circle she needs to place the nucleus. The results of the decisions she has made are realized in a drawing such as that of Figure 3.

Whatever the mode, epistemological commitment cannot be avoided: a shape of some kind has to be drawn to indicate the cell-wall and the cell; a dot or a circle of some size has to be made as a representation of the nucleus; and the dot or circle has to be placed somewhere. The drawing carries no suggestion of possession or of a timeless truth; in the drawing, the relation is one of spatial co-locations of a specific kind: proximate or distant, central or marginal.

Epistemological commitment cannot be avoided, no matter what the mode.

It varies in line with the affordances of each mode: here in a contrast of speech and image — of lexis vs depiction ; of possession vs proximity or distance , of centrality or marginality ; as a verb-form vs spatial co-location ; sequence as temporal succession in speech or linearity in writing vs simultaneity of appearance and arrangement of the entities.

Both these signs were newly made. Both the spoken utterance and the drawing represent this student's selection from a large variety of curricular material, encountered in the course of four lessons. In making the signs, she is making knowledge for herself and for others. For learning and teaching, in the construction and presentation of a curriculum for a specific group, this matters. To me it is not at all clear what knowledge is before it is made material in a representation.

In speech , knowledge is represented in a mode shaped by the underlying logic of sequence of elements in time ; as image , it is shaped by the logic of simultaneity of elements in space. Each logic , with the social shaping of each in long histories of social and semiotic work, imposes its ontology and epistemology on what is represented through the organization of elements in arrangements.

To make a sign is to make knowledge. Knowledge is shaped in the use, by a social agent, of distinct representational affordances of specific modes at the point of making of the sign. Modes are the result of social shaping and bear the traces of that work of constant selection in many environments. Why were these materials selected and not others? And why have these aspects of the materials been emphasized and those others ignored? These are traces of work done in response to social concerns, focus, interest, need, and so on.

That can tell us much about the histories of the groups of those who use the modes. It can also tells us why two cultures may share a mode and yet make profoundly different use of that mode semiotically. As a simple yet stark example, we know that all societies use the mode of gesture ; yet how that mode is used differs vastly between, say, communities of the speech impaired and communities of people who are not affected this way.

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The insistence that the linguistic modes of speech and writing are — like all modes — partial means of making meaning forces attention onto the role of other modes in meaning-making. In short, this opens up a view on a much fuller sense of meaning and knowing.

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The meanings of social and professional life — of the snooker player or the surgeon, of the child playing in a sandpit or of the amateur cook at home, re-creating a dish encountered on vacation — now appear everywhere, and all are becoming amenable to descriptions and accounts. In principle, this opens the windows to an encompassing and generous view of the meanings of all members of a social group, without the restricting perspective of linguistic lenses.

The recognition of semiotic work — as agency and in all modes — has the same potentially freeing effect. The potentials of that for rethinking forms of assessment in all domains, and in schools in particular, are entirely untapped and hugely promising.

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The central place accorded to materiality in MMDA — even though subject to constant social and semiotic work — remains: MMDA opens the possibility of moving against the reductiveness of twentieth-century generalization and abstraction in much of linguistics for instance , and toward a full account — in conjunction with other theories and disciplines — of the impact of the fact that, as humans, we are physical, material bodies and that meaning cannot be understood outside the recognition of this materiality. Modes shape our encounter with the world and our means of re-making the world in semiotic entities of any kind.

Social semiotics serves to emphasize what is shared communicationally: that there need to be resources for showing connection and relation in any mode, even though they will be different in each mode; that features of meaning are shared among all modes — intensity, framing, foregrounding, highlighting, coherence and cohesion , forms of genre , etc. Intensity may be materialized as loudness in speech and as saturation in colour , or as thickness or bolding in writing or in image.

Communicationally, social semiotic theory brings a rhetorical approach : that is, rhetoric as the politics of communication demands an attitude that enquires about the social environment of communication and its participants, about their relations in terms of power and their social characteristics. It focuses on what is to be communicated and on the means available for materializing the meanings at issue and the means most apt in terms of the social environment and of the characteristics of the audience. The designer , usually the same person as the rhetor , then has the task of turning the rhetorical assessment of the environment, of the audience and of the means for materializing these into a design most likely to meet the political aims of the rhetor.

The availability of modes founded on the different logics of time and space — or of both, as in sign languages , or dance — is particularly useful as a resource for design , for instance in designing texts or other semiotic objects on the differing principles of modularity or linearity — or to use the insights of the theory to provide descriptions of how these principles work in different modes, as much as in different cultures. In areas of cross-cultural communication a multimodal approach is an essential prerequisite, and it affects all forms of composition, everywhere, though differently in different sites.

The pace of transport, the instantaneity of access in many domains, have changed the social and political and economic framings of the world and, with that, the framings around — and of — the cultural resources at issue in the semiotic domain, the domain of meaning- making.

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This entails that more adequate, sharper tools are needed, tools that are apt for the multiplicity of semiotic resources as much as for the intensely varying appearances and effects of power in a largely unbounded and barely framed semiotic world. Rhetoric is essential when every occasion of communication is likely to be new and often profoundly different. Design , similarly, is at the forefront of essential semiotic dispositions in a world of vastly varying resources, many instantly accessible, needed and used.

Both the need and the potentials for designing have increased and have moved centre stage. Notions of in- coherence are hugely more problematic and difficult: coherence and incoherence have become more visible with the ubiquity of screens and more difficult to establish with a move to horizontally organized power. In a world of much greater variety and variability, the wide range of available modes increases the possibilities and potentials of apt representations of the world framed. The labels we have come from a world that was founded on the pre-eminence of language, and of writing in particular.

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Using terms that carry a heavy freight of past theory designed for different tasks, now congealed into commonsense, is likely to skew the new enterprise in its development. There is a large agenda of work here.

There is also the promise of seeing and doing better. Both will be essential in dealing with the problems that currently define the world of meaning. Jewitt, C. London: RoutledgeFalmer.