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!)


"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).