Some weaknesses in Kress’ multi-modality framework

In The garden of forking paths Jorge Luis Borges describes a novel where a character can choose a path such that it does not eliminate the option of pursuing a mutually exclusive path. Thus, the character can traverses a future wherein their paths diverge and then converge again, thereby allowing alternative possibilities to occur simultaneously. This fictional labyrinth is a fitting metaphor for understanding the hyperlinked, hyper-reality of the world wide web where infinite possibilities are laid out before the user like a labyrinth and they can walk along an endless trail along forking paths.

The New London Group and Gunter Kress in particular employ a pluralistic approach to understanding the new medium and modes furnished by electronic texts and the World Wide Web. Kress et al’s approach examines the social developments that have introduced greater cultural diversity and necessitated multi-literacy. They also examine the technological evolution that has afforded multi-modalities and how the medium and the modes employ text, images, video and audio as both signs and signifiers. Their work is heavily influenced by Barthes’ semiotic theory and they use it as a basis for proposing and developing their framework for multi-literacy and multi-modality. However, contemporary technology does more than introducing images, video and audio to as textual elements and altering the relationships between signs, signifiers and the signified. They also lay out a network of forking paths for the reader. While Kress et al do discuss the democratizing effects of contemporary media and its social effects, however, there is less focus on how these networks alter the ‘reading’ experience for individual users.

Secondly, as Prior argues, Kress et al take a binary approach to understanding multi-modality and this limits its applicability. Prior presents three strong arguments to support his claim. First, he argues that multi-modality was not a discrete event that was turned on by the affordance of new technologies. Rather, as prior demonstrates, there was a gradual shift towards design of texts. Where Kress argues that traditional texts have been rigid and conventional esp. with respect to reading paths, Prior demonstrates that books from diverse genres and disciplines (such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, field guides, cook books) have had multiple entry points and self-organized reading paths. Prior also criticizes Kress’ argument that words must inescapably sequentially processes when employed in interpretation (and construction) of narratives and for making meaning. However, Kress is ignoring the fact that images must also be sequentially processed, as evidenced in movies. Moreover, diagrams such as process flows, infographics etc. must also be sequentially processed. Lastly, when Kress states that semiotics does not deal with learning, he is ignoring the work of theorists such as Voloshinov and Vygotsky.

Kress (and The New London Group) have developed an impressive framework for multi-modalities however after reading Prior I understood that some of the weaknesses of their arguments are similar to Ong’s weaknesses in his analysis of Orality and Literacy. Kress, like Ong sets up false dichotomies (powerful binaries in Prior’s language) and assumes a clear and distinct shift from one period to the next (similar to Ong arguing that literacy supplanted orality). However, this approach ignores the <i>in-betweens</i>, i.e. the gradual changes and the hybrids

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Borges, Jorge Luis. (1964). “The garden of forking paths.” In Yates, D.A. & Irby, J.E. (Eds.), Labyrinths: Selected stories and other writings (pp.87-101). New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Cope, B. and Kalantzis, M. (2009). “‘Multiliteracies’: New Literacies, New Learning.  Pedagogies: An International Journal.  4(3), 164-195.

Kress, Gunter. (2005).  “Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledgeand learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), 5-22.

New London Group. (1996). “A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures.” Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Prior, Paul (2004) “Moving multimodality beyond the binaries: A response to Gunther Kress’ “Gains and Losses”. Computers and Composition 22 (2005) 23–30.

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