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5 Valuing multimodal texts

In this course I have explored a number of ways of looking at and analysing multimodal texts. The examples shown can be said to display creativity or ‘artistry’ in some way, but not all multimodal texts are necessarily creative, even some of those which can be analysed as ‘literary’ via Formalism. There are dangers in assigning the ‘creative’ label to any text purely on the basis of its visual nature. Multimodal texts are ubiquitous in everyday life (shop and traffic signs, labels and packaging, telephone directories). But although these are often analysable in terms of poetic structures such as deviation or parallelism, some, like dead metaphors, are now so routinised that they deliver little by way of illumination of creativity, even if they might be interesting for other reasons. Not everything that is created is creative, perhaps – some texts and artefacts are simply ‘made’ or ‘produced’ (Pope, 2005).

So on what basis do we as readers judge multimodal literature as ‘good’ or ‘bad? These are necessarily subjective judgements. Perhaps we learn to ascribe value to multimodal literary texts depending on the same (albeit even less specific) notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘high’ and ‘low’. In a sense, then, our aesthetic judgements depend at least in part on what we have learned to value in our society and culture. Tenniel's illustrations in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, or E.H. Shepard's in Winnie the Pooh, tend be accorded high value, but it is very difficult to disentangle them from the value accorded to the whole text, both being widely accepted as part of the canon of English literature. Viewed in isolation, for example, The Mouse's Tale’ could be said to be quite superficial in terms of the range of interpretations and layers of meaning it potentially offers to the reader. It is a successful, quick pun between visual and verbal modes, but there is no real complexity in the poem in terms of the relationship between the actual words used, the overall shape it takes, and the meanings. Richard Bradford argued that ‘good literature’ is distinguished from ‘bad literature’ by the extent to which form and meaning are held in balance – a complex interplay that allows a poem to resist closure. ‘The Mouse's Tale’ is fun, but it seems to me that here meaning is rather unrelated to form, apart from the tale/tail pun. The poem ‘she being Brand’, on the other hand, by e e cummings, can be seen as having a clearer relationship between typographical form, and at least two possible interpretations of the meaning of the poem – a drive in a new car, or a sexual experience. Re-readings of this poem can easily trigger new associations and semantic connections: it resists closure, leaving us slightly unsure as to what is its central topic.

The context in which we encounter a text can also influence the value we ascribe to it. ‘The Unknown’ is an example of a ‘poem’ constructed – by setting it out in a ‘poem-like’ way – from a political speech by Donald Rumsfeld, at a US Department of Defense news briefing in February 2002. It has been taken from the mode of speech into the mode of writing, and laid out on the page in a way which suggests (visually) ‘this is poetry’. We can of course analyse it as a poem, even without knowing its provenance, and find that it ‘counts’ as poetry because of its textual features. But one of the main signifiers in Hart Seely's reappropriation of the words as a poem is the visual layout. The change from oral to visual mode enacts a re-evaluation of the text – Seely decided that it ‘counted’ as poetry, set it out as such, and in doing so asks us to accept his claim.

But the visual appearance of a poem can also lead us to devalue its worth. Figure 18 is an example that, for me at least, does not ‘count’ as poetry.

This ‘found poem’ is part of a collection of texts encountered at random by Kenneth Goldsmith, posted up on billboards or taped onto lamp posts in New York City. There are at least 75 ‘found’ texts on the UbuWeb website, all varying considerably in their style and purpose. Some are home-made adverts, some are appeals for information about lost dogs, and so on, and some, like this one, claim to be poetry. In some respects it succeeds, for me, in its claim to be a poem – a Formalist analysis would find that it rhymes, it scans, it has repetition and parallelism. But despite the claim to be accepted as a poem evidenced in its title (‘Poems For All’), I find it particularly hard to divorce the words of the poem itself from the look of it and the fact that it was found in the street. I find this poem interesting because of its scrawled, handwritten letters (and the erratic mix of lower and upper case), the underlining, and the tatty paper it is written on.

Figure 18
Figure 18 Poem collected from a public space in New York City (Kenneth Goldsmith).

Materials are imbued with semiotic significance – a hasty, handwritten note pinned to an office door has a different meaning to an engraved plaque, even if the words themselves are identical. We take meaning from texts depending on what they are made of (pen on notepaper, graffiti on a wall) and on where we encounter them. ‘The Mouse's Tale’ could mean differently if it were subway graffiti, or scrawled on a torn piece of notepaper like ‘Poems For All’. ‘Materiality’ – the stuff that texts are made of – can be seen as significant in terms of literary value.

Activity 9: Context, material and value

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

Figure 19 shows a poem carved along the length of an underpass wall at Waterloo station in London. The two photographs are of the same poem – it starts at the underpass entrance as shown in the first, then continues down the pedestrian walkway as shown in the second. Do you accept it as poetry? Would you change your mind if you found it spray-painted rather than carved, or printed in a book rather than created on a wall?

Figure 19
Figure 19 Verses from ‘Eurydice’ (Sue Hubbard).

Answer

Like ‘Poems For All’, this is a poem encountered in a public space. I would accept this as poetry, and accord it literary value. Its meaning and form seem to connect quite directly with each other, and with the context of the poem's encounter There are references such as damp city streets and rush-hour headlights which the weary commuter passing through the subway would find easy to relate to. You may well disagree.

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