What is it about?

How is it that mass-communicative visuals combined with minimal written text are by and large correctly interpreted in the way their creator intended? The answer is: because the envisaged audience (a) recognizes the genre to which the image belongs, and is knowledgeable about the purpose of the genre to which it belongs; (b) accesses the image at a moment that is to a considerable extent foreseen by the creator; (c) accesses the image at a location which is to a considerable extent foreseen by the creator. In the case of Peter van Straaten's tear-off calendar cartoons, the audience knows (a) the cartoons are supposed to be funny, making one smile; (b) they are typically seen and read in the morning of a new day; (c) the calendar often hangs in the home, often on the toilet.

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Why is it important?

Whereas in face-to-face communication interlocutors can continually check whether they correctly understand each other, mass-communication does not allow for immediate feedback. One might think that as a result, mass-communicative messages, particularly purely visual messages or visual messages only accompanied by a sentence or so (= a type of multimodal communication) would often be misinterpreted. The claim in this paper is that the chances of misinterpretation are enormously reduced by the fact that both mass-communicators and their envisaged audiences trust that they share awareness about the purpose of the message -- and this purpose is closely tied to its genre: the 8 o'clock news wants to inform; the advertisement wants to sell; the non-political cartoon wants to entertain; and the political cartoon wants to criticize politicians in an entertaining manner. The analyses of ten Peter van Straaten cartoons thus help outline what theoretical concepts are needed for a full-blown theory of mass-communication.


In the paper I demonstrate how the interpretation of the cartoons is guided by the relevance principle -- developed in Sperber and Wilson's relevance theory. For some time I have been working on a monograph, signed with Oxford University Press, in which I propose how relevance theory can be adapted and refined to accommodate visual and multimodal mass-communication. Hopefully the book will appear in 2020

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: Addressing an audience: Time, place, and genre in Peter van Straaten’s calendar cartoons, Humor - International Journal of Humor Research, January 2005, De Gruyter, DOI: 10.1515/humr.2005.18.3.247.
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