Sunday, February 19, 2006

Kress - Literacy in the New Media Age (2003) II

In Literacy in the New Media Age, Gunther Kress settles into a gradual progression from long-held presumptions about alphabetic literacy to an increasingly hybridized and "multimodal" literacy based on the screen. The screen's proclivity for combining images and text has profound consequences, Kress argues, for the temporal/sequential logics of letter, word and clause as units of meaning. Kress contends that syntactic complexity is compromised as the frenetic reading pathways of the screen condition readers and writers to mixed-mode framings that, in turn, impact how they read and write. Contrary to my expectations, Kress is none too sour on this trend; in fact, his movement through dense sociolinguistic explanations of literacy, genre and punctuation as framing are impressively nuanced. Yet, very little of the first two-thirds of the book is explicit about the ways in which new writing technologies are entangled in the shifts he describes, and in this sense, I find Kress to be frustrating in how patiently he advances his back-analysis on traditional alphabetic literacy (replicated in formal Western schooling)--while the matter at hand--screens as a site of particular kinds of changed writing activity--hovers as a given. This book is far more about "Literacy" than about "the New Media Age;" it inches toward actual discussions of interfaces, and finally, near the end of chapter eight, offers a screen-shot of a web page with eleven (by Kress's count) "entry-points" for reading. Kress's point with the screenshot: "'reading' is now a distinctively different activity to what it was in the era of the traditional page" (138).

Granted, the tensions between linearity and directionality; image, writing and speech; space and time; and screen and page are significant, and because Kress is so complete in his attention to these contending factors, LITNMA is a solid primer for 'literacy after the revolution'. There are, Kress concludes, heavy implications from all of this on teaching--bang that drum, yes? I re-discovered, in chapter seven, "Multimodality, Multimedia and Genre," familiar ideas before I realized that I'd read it before. It's anthologized in Carolyn Handa's Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World, one of the collections we looked at two years ago in CCR601. In the chapter, Kress works on the problem of "ensembles of modes"--mixed imagetexts that don't reconcile neatly with known genre-types: "In the new communicational world there are now choices about how what is to be represented should be represented: in what mode, in what genre, in what ensembles of modes and genres and on what occasions" (117). At the end of the chapter, Kress determines that notions of mixed genres are less useful and that labeling is perhaps unhelpful; instead, we might prepare students to "feel at ease in a world of incessant change" (121) with something like Carolyn Miller's genre as social action or more generative applications of genre.

The chapter I'll return to, however, is chapter nine, "Reading as Semiosis," because it's the place where Kress best develops the shift from reading as interpretation to reading as design (50) (in new media encounters). He wants us to get at the question of whether "reading" refers to the linear process of following alphabetic sequences or, in light of the subordination of text to image and the ubiquity of the screen, something else, something akin to combinations, scanning, and reading paths (I'd include pattern) (156). There's much in this chapter to recommend re: reading the digital; it's the place I'll turn to first when I revisit this book for comps later this year. And just one last point (because it's late...), the final chapter is also a nice sketch of many of the other principles embraced by the New London Group.

Terms: display (9), scape (11), reading path (37), concept map (54), placement (65), genres (93), recount (108), ensembles of modes (116), distance (118, 141), transduction (125; elsewhere, see index), anaphoric (128), emergent writing (146), functional specialisation (20, 156, elsewhere), scanning (159), anchorage (165)

Of note: Chart on p. 70; Genre and labels 112 and 118 (conflict!)

Quotations

"A vast change is under way, with as yet unknowable consequences. It involves the remaking of relations between what a culture makes available as means for making meaning (what I shall call throughout the book, representational modes--speech, writing, image, gesture, music and others) and what the culture makes available as means for distributing these meanings as messages (the media of dissemination--book, computer-screen, magazine, video, film, radio, chat, and so on). 'Literacy', in whatever sense, is entirely involved in that" (22).

"A question that is pressing is, is it possible to make the same meanings with sounds in time (and all the cultural elaborations of that) as with light in space (and the elaborations of that)? This becomes urgent now that the new technologies permit a ready and easy choice: shall I represent this as written text or as image?" (33).

"This book is not the place to conduct this debate [on the cultural pessimism toward changes in reading and writing] in any extended fashion, but is can be the place for starting it in a way that goes beyond mere polemic, and might suggest the framework within which a productive argument might be conducted around this question" (51).

"My assumption is that syntactically and textually writing may be becoming more speech-like once again, while in its visual/graphic/spatial dimensions there is a move in the opposite direction, away from speech" (73).

"Does the category of genre remain important, useful, necessary; does it become more or less important in the era of multimodal communication? The answer is that the category of genre is essential in all attempts to understand text, whatever its modal constitution. The point is to develop a theory and terms adequate to that" (107).

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