Paradigm, No. 11 (July, 1993)

G. Kress and T. van Leeuwen. Reading Images Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press, 1990, ISBN 0730012573. Price £14.30

John Parker
Departtment of Sociology, University College, Swansea SA2 8PP

This book offers a semiotics for analysing the visual imagery of Western societies. The authors intend that it should provide teachers and their students with a tool kit to help them talk about the way images communicate meanings. It is undoubtedly true that people generally find it difficult to make explicit the technical basis of visual communication and may feel frustrated by their inability. Semiotics, as a heuristic, often helps people begin the process of rationalising the effects of visual imagery. The same can be said for verbal communication, but the authors feel that there is much greater awareness of the grammatical and rhetorical structures of language and that there is a pressing need for a visual equivalent because of the development of a ‘new visual literacy’. The implication is that people now live in a world of powerful imagery which can determine how they think and make value judgements. Critical reading, using semiotics, is proposed as the best defence against being led by the nose (eye). In particular, the authors are keen to see it applied to text- books, and illustrate their analysis with repeated reference to an Australian primary school social science text called Our Society and Others.

It is in the nature of the highly analytic formality of semiotic exposition to resist easy summary, or easy reading. The authors helpfully provide summary diagrams as they unfold their system of categories. Their visual semiotics is developed by identifying, as far as is possible, the functional equivalents of verbal forms. All semiotic modes are said to consist of ways of relating, 1) ‘represented participants’ (e.g. figures and objects in pictures), 2) ‘interactive participants’ (e.g. viewers and authors etc.) and 3) elements of the page (e.g. the spatial arrangement and relative size of objects) to each other. Each of these kinds of relation receives a chapter, the longest, Chapter Two, being devoted to ‘interactive participants. Chapter Four provides an economical example of the kind of analysis on offer, where we find rules governing the use of horizontal and vertical axes to distribute visual information. It is suggested that the top:bottom difference corresponds to the ideal:real and the left:right difference corresponds to the given:new, such that the least ‘salient’ information tends to be in the bottom left and the most ‘salient’ in the top right. Such thought-provoking ideas are discussed in the sensible and simple framework of the three sets of relations where they are accessible for quick reference. The book could be used to create stimulating teaching.

However there are reservations. One is the absence of any detailed suggestions about how, or in which educational contexts or levels, critical teachers might use the tool kit. There is a tension between the choice of some examples (primary school texts, babies’ books, children’s drawings) and the kind of highly reflective critique for which older children have an appetite. Moreover, critical semiotic reading is almost impossible to avoid in adolescent social science or history teaching (the desire to determine value positions is strong enough to drive the investigation of images) but less immediately relevant for, say, physical geography or chemistry. There is not always as much critical and moral reward from semiotic analysis as there is when dealing with communications about social relations.

This leads to a second doubt. The authors disclaim that their semiotics is universal. It depends on familiarity with the basic cultural forms of western consciousness, its ‘cryptotypes’ (p. 117). The implication is that there is a cultural level at which it is possible for ‘western’ people to arrive at some sort of consensus about the meanings to be attributed to elements in images. That cultural competence is required to apply semiotic categories to specific examples making judgements of appropriateness is correct, so some limitation of scope has to be accepted. However, though ‘western’ is less than universal, it is still pretty wide and vague. Who is in and who out? It is surely important to apply a critical reading to the use of such a category. Its referent is taken for granted and its rhetorical function is to establish a community between the ‘interactive participants’ of this book. This hypothesis is supported by the authors’claim that their semiotics allows:

  • a mode of debate which, in the end, rests on uncontentious grounds. It is possible to reach agreement on distinctions of a code which we all share, and we can easily learn to use the same words for things which we can, in fact, already see, and make ourselves conscious of things which we do, in fact, already know. (p. 125)
  • Thus linguistic uniformity, and making conscious by saying are suggested as a foundation for arriving at agreements about more contentious and important differences of value. One may doubt this as a political strategy, but it does propose a specific test for the authors’ semiotics: namely that consensus about the meaning of visual elements is practically possible.

    That this issue strikes at the heart of their programme of semiotic education will be apparent to anybody who, like myself, found themselves disagreeing with 1) the meanings associated with formal semiotic elements and 2) their interpretive application to particular images. Perhaps I was not ‘western’ or just plain culturally incompetent? For example they associate ‘closeup’ with intimacy and informality and the long shot with their opposites. One has only to think of Eisenstein’s use of close-up to doubt the generalisation. In the discussion of horizontal angle, the frontal view is associated with involvement, the oblique with detachment. A low vertical angle is associated with the power of the represented object or figure. In the light of these generalisations what is one to make of the criminal ‘mug-shot’, or of certain Italian Renaissance profile portraits? One could go on finding counter-examples to unsettle the generalisations. One might be tempted to do so by what I can only describe as the extraordinary dogmatism with which the authors attribute meanings to visual elements and examples. This tone is set in the first chapter which discusses the differences between Baby’s First Book (Ladybird) and Dick Bruna’s On My Walk, which I will not attempt to reproduce. Not until page 52 does the phrase ‘we hypothesize...’ occur, and I was encouraged by an outbreak of the conditional on page 86 where the word ‘might’ is used three times. The ease with which one can suggest plausible alternative meanings suggests that the authors are a bit too optimistic about their postulated basic consensus and hence their critical programme. Consensus is an empirical matter and they eschew the ethnography which might begin to resolve it.

    In fact their optimism is a symptom of their positivism. Semiotic technique is advocated because it is supposed to yield the meaning of elements and the rules governing ‘western’ visual communication. Within the limits of the ‘western’, these meanings are objective and consensual. Moreover they appear to work by themselves; there is no acknowledgement of the agency of sign-users -- every usage is unconsciously motivated. Somehow the producers of images ‘get it right’ and there is no room for producers who do not know the rules, or know them but flout them. Though a functional equivalence is being established between the verbal and the visual, a full recognition of functional alternatives within the visual would mean that every image would have to be read as uniquely determined, partly by intentional agent(s) using cultural resources but not following rules in any strong sense. The same goes for the activity of interpreters. The hermeneutic process is endless, has no ‘final solution’: displacing the imperialist objectifying discourse of white Australians about Aborigines (contained in Our Society and Others), by an appeal to the ‘obviousness’ of unconscious semiotic knowledge, seems only to reproduce an appeal to authority (pp. 32- 36). In short the authors are committed to the foundationalist ambitions of structuralism, which can only be remedied by introducing agency and histories. There is something slightly dated about an enterprise devoted so confidently to ‘consciousness-raising ‘ based on a western consensus, given all the methodological debates of post-empiricism and post-structuralism.

    In conclusion, semiotic awareness can be advocated for everyone. It is useful to try to hypothesize about the functions of visual elements, the intentions of producers and interpreters and any rules which seem to hold among various classes of images. But rather than apply a semiotic tool kit in a doctrinaire fashion, teachers might encourage exhaustive, imaginative, critical looking. Motivating this drive to avoid over-looking is difficult, but it can be taught by example. I suggest that this book should be used in that spirit, as an example of what one might come up with if one were to do semiotics rather than merely apply someone else’s. Its usefulness does not depend on an unrealistic cultural consensus, but by the same token the authors ought to give up their positivist ambitions.

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