Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design

I have to admit I have been having a bit of a hard time deciding how to respond to the Kress and Van Leeuwen other than to make connections between the theory of grammar of visual images that they are cultivating and then connect it to rhetorical concepts that I am a bit more familiar with. After some initial disappointment with myself, I decided that making those connections is perhaps one of the most valuable things that I should be doing with this text.

One of the first things that struck me as I was reading Kress and Van Leeuwen’s Reading Images is that their characterization of the semiotic potential is very reminiscent of the idea of the rhetorical situation. The discuss working with the available means of communication, which they call “available forms” and “available classifications.” As in the concept of the rhetorical situation, semiotic potential “is defined by the semiotic resources available to a specific individual in a specific social context” (9).

It is interesting to me to compare some of the concepts that Kress and Leeuwen discuss to concepts that I am more familiar with from rhetorical theory. When they discuss the relationship between participants moderated by vectors, I immediately thought of the connection to the concept of agency. Who has agency in the rhetorical situation? How does the communication mode allow for agency? According to Kress and Leeuwen the actor seems to have the agency, as the vector departs from the actor. While some interactions contain no transaction, others do. It is interesting to see so much focus on reaction, because I feel that in many rhetorical analyses overlook such a strong focus on the reaction. While the rhetorical situation needs to be understood, a very important part of the rhetorical transaction is the audience reception of the message.

This discussion of the narrative design in which action moves in a transaction from the actor outward, and perhaps to a receiver to reciprocates, is reminiscent of Atzom’s discussion of narrative plot. Atzom was somewhat vague about the potential structures of such interactions, saying that “design narratives are typically constructed of layered interconnected meanings that are articulated in a holistic fashion both in the physical form of design artifacts but also in their processes” (xiv). Kress and Leeuwen, on the other hand, provide some visions of what those interactions look like. I personally find Atzmon’s discussion of layered and interconnected meanings to be more appealing because in some ways I find Kress and Van Leeuwen’s approach to be limiting. Atzmon’s description of layers and interconnectedness makes narrative seem less of a linear flow and more of an awareness of the ambient environemnt, and it also allows for deeper discussion of what may be concealed or revealed.

I’ve worked with social semiotics before, but I found it the discussion of the basic elements of the metafunctions of social semiotics to be very helpful in my thoughts about my own project. Kress and Leeuwen have said that all semiotics modes must have an ideational metafunction, an interpersonal function, and a textual metafunction. Of these metafunctions, I think that my weakest understanding was of the textual metafunction. The notion of the anchor is helpful for me to understand that concept.

Like Atzmon, Kress and Van Leeuwen argue that artifacts are understood through examination of their historical context. The articles in Atzmon’s text “decipher cultural themes in the creation, form, or use of artifacts that offer insights into the historical contexts in which these artifacts were created and used” (xxvi). While Atzmon calls this a rhetorical approach, Kress and Van Leeuwn claim that “scientific realism” views reality through the eye of a beholder, and that beholder has “had cultural training, and is located in a social setting and a history” (158). It seems, then, that to understand a design, we must not only understand the historical context of its production, but perhaps we should also understand the context of the reception. Birdsell and Goarke address the notion of meaning and how meaning is successful, or not, by saying “The meaning of a visual claim or argument obviously depends on a complex set of relationships between a particular image/text and a given set of interpreters” (313). Those interpreters, it seems, determine the way in which the image is seen or received.





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