What is it about?

This book proposes that Sperber and Wilson's (1986) language-oriented "relevance theory" (RT) can be adapted and refined to account for visual communication -- indeed for ALL communication. Sperber and Wilson claim that every act of communication comes with the presumption (not: the guarantee!) of optimal relevance to its envisaged audience. The degree of relevance is determined by the degree of usefulness of the communicated information for the audience (the "benefit" side of relevance), offset by the degree of mental effort required by the audience to process this information. The first half of my monograph begins by arguing that the relevance principle is rooted in our species' natural desire to survive, for which cooperation with conspecifics is crucial. In chapters 2 and 3, classic RT is explained for non-linguists and suggestions are made how it can accommodate visuals and visuals-plus-short-written-texts. The single most important factor steering interpretation is "genre": genre ensures that RT's fundamental idea that "relevance is always relevance to an individual" remains pertinent in mass communication (chapter 5). Since visuals and multimodal discourses are usually aimed not at individuals but at (large) groups, chapter 5 proposes how classic RT (with its focus on one-to-one spoken communication) functions in mass communication. The second half of the book demonstrates how the relevance principle works in practice, more specifically in the analysis of pictograms (and brand logos, and traffic signs); advertisements; cartoons; and comics. Chapter 10 shows how RT can deal with deceptive and controversial visuals.

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Why is it important?

Scholarship is in need of an inclusive theory of visual communication. Whereas many disciplines (such as semiotics, film studies, stylistics, blending theory, and conceptual metaphor theory) have contributed crucial insights to analysing visuals and multimodal discourses, an overall theory is hitherto lacking. RT can be expanded to fulfill this role.


RT does not need to be adopted INSTEAD of other theories or approaches. Indeed, these other approaches remain necessary for the analysis of any specific visual or multimodal discourse. RT is no less, but also no more than a model, which needs to be complemented by analytical tools developed in other scholarly paradigms. In the final chapter, suggestions are made for further developing RT to accommodate other media and modes than the ones discussed in this book. Major challenges are applying RT to film (sporting minimally the following modes: moving images, spoken language, written language, sound, and music) and to web-based communication. The book furthermore emphasizes those aspects of being human that are shared across the globe, thereby complementing and counterbalancing Cultural Studies' insistence on the importance of specific group identities for meaning-making. Finally, it is expected that the book also will help further theorize aspects of "classic" RT.

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: Visual and Multimodal Communication, August 2020, Oxford University Press (OUP), DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190845230.001.0001.
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