What is it about?

This book review praises Kress for being an acute observer and analyst of multimodal discourses, but presents criticisms of Kress' sometimes shaky theorizing, and unfounded prejudices against cognitivist approaches to multimodality.

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Why is it important?

Kress is, together with Theo van Leeuwen, one of the founding fathers of Social Semiotics -- rooted in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). The two authors' Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (first edition: 1996; third edition: 2022) is a classic of the paradigm. Just like this earlier book, however, Multimodality has not only many qualities, it also has serious flaws. Unfortunately the fact that Kress & Van Leeuwen did pioneering work on multimodality meant that numerous (young) scholars take their concepts and analyses for granted, using them as a self-evident starting point for doing multimodal discourse without realizing social semiotics' weaknesses. The result of this is that the young discipline of multimodality runs the risk of not being taken seriously by the broader scholarly community.


One of the problems in Kress' book is that he postulates far more freedom of interpretation of visuals and multimodal discourse than is warranted. The default of ANY act of communication is that the sender and the audience of a message have the shared interest that the audience understands the sender's intention as closely as possible -- and it is thus in the sender's interest not to be unnecessarily ambiguous. Accepting this, to be sure, does not detract from the importance of identifying, and, where appropriate, questioning ideological assumptions governing discourse. In my view, the cognitivist-oriented Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986) offers a more robust starting point for theorizing visual and multimodal communication than Social Semiotics/SFL. This I try to demonstrate in Visual and Multimodal Communication: Applying the Relevance Principle (Oxford UP 2020).

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication, Journal of Pragmatics, November 2011, Elsevier, DOI: 10.1016/j.pragma.2011.06.013.
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