Kress and van Leeuwen at Leeds

On the 15th and 16th of May, researchers at the University of Leeds hosted Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, the “founding fathers” of Multimodality, at a two-day event on all things Multimodal(ity). This was the first event of its kind – that is, to welcome such esteemed guests, as many participants, and to span two days and several rooms! – held in the name of Multimodality at Leeds. So, in many ways it was the newly founded Multimodality Satellite’s inaugural celebration; we’re certainly pleased with how things went, and several ideas exchanged across the two days left an impression on us. Moreover, we are excited by what’s to come – not only in the field of Multimodality in general, but in terms of what Leeds researchers can contribute to this expanding field.

The event was of particular significance because it was cause for the reunion of the pioneers of Multimodality and Social Semiotics: Gunther and Theo.

The two-day event was organised with the support of: the Centre for Translation Studies, Language@Leeds, the School of Media and Communication, the PGR funds of the School of Media and Communication and the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, and the ESRC WRDTC Communication and Media Pathway.

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Dr Giorgia Aiello (M&C), Gunther Kress, Theo van Leeuwen, and Dr Elisabetta Adami (LCS).

Monday 15th May
Modes, Meaning, and Boundaries: Questions and Namings (Joint Lecture)

The material is the starting block to success: At a public lecture taking place on the evening of Monday 15th, Gunther and Theo treated us to both individual talks and joint discussions on topics ranging from their first (and quite tentative) footsteps into Multimodality and Social Semiotics, up to their present-day movements in the fields. It was illuminating to hear about the informal settings (back gardens and coffee shops) that played host to the pair’s earliest work in pioneering Multimodality, as well as the texts that inspired the initial set of questions from which Multimodality was to bloom (children’s books and Australian women’s magazines). It was advised by both Gunther and Theo during the lecture, and underscored the next morning at the workshop, that we should always keep something in mind when conducting multimodal research: start with the material being studied and draw out the ideas from there; don’t impose ideas onto material. From the material, one can begin to make something, and from theirs Gunther and Theo made Multimodality.

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Kress’ current thinking around Social Semiotics: One of the standout remarks from Gunther’s talk was the idea that “semiotic phenomena are mirrors of the social” or, more precisely, mirrors of social conceptions about how things are: “the social is coded in the semiotic.” The social changes from site to site, and so we can say that institutional sites are mirrors of their social; for example, the semiotic phenomena that occur in a schoolroom, courthouse, or site for religious worship reflect how those spaces’ societies’ conceive the world. We must see the local as site, and sometimes the local might take on an unusual form. In an online environment, for example, the semiotic practices taking place within the bounds of a certain (political/religious/artistic/etc.) community’s Facebook page is reflective of their social.

Some other ideas that made Gunther’s talk a fascinating, fast-paced venture into the dynamism of Multimodality and Social Semiotics were:
– His coinage of “the new normal,” wherein the lines defining satire, parody, and reality have become obscured.
– His questions about the boundaries of Social Semiotics: is touch a mode (touch can be guided, is susceptible to learning, and can therefore be educated and educate)?; what about affect and semiosis (there are semiotic resources for showing affect)?

van Leeuwen‘s ideas about technology and Social Semiotics: Theo spoke to us about the increasing authority of models and diagrams in societies; both have become authoritative in affecting our understandings of the world, and they have become authoritative as regulators of social practices. We cannot escape the limits of some models (consider the way our options are limited by the in-built Facebook model, for example), and Theo argues that models/diagrams are “social and technological at the same time.” In explaining that models/diagrams systems of control geared towards a desired state, Theo stirred up thoughts of who it is that decides how such systems are controlled, and what the desired state they’re geared towards is? As such, we can begin to see how models, diagrams, software, data visualisations and the like are mirrors of the(ir) social, in the vein of Gunther’s talk.

The timely content of Theo’s talk, with its questions about the role of Social Semiotics in understanding technologies, feeds into critical debates on how Big Data is handled – this evidencing how both Multimodality and Social Semiotics are only growing in relevance alongside technological developments:
– Theo is querying how semiotics can help commercial agents understand Big Data and networks beyond the quantitative.
– Grammars are constituted by data/software; these are designed as opposed to organically generated and compel participants to behave or use it in a certain way (again, we might consider how we have become conditioned to use Facebook or other social media in certain ways that are actually (semiotically speaking) quite narrow or specific).

Tuesday 16th May
Research Workshop on Multimodality

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Theo and Gunther offering ten-minute micro-supervisions to ten postdoc/postgrad students

Postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers from the School of Media and Communication (M&C), School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (LCS), and School of Education (Ed) were particularly pleased about the prospect of Guther and Theo’s visit: on the second day of proceedings, a workshop on Multimodality took place in a novel format that enabled ten students across the three schools to receive micro-supervisions from the two experts. The premise of the workshop was that presentations (7 minutes in length) would be based around a problem or issue researchers had confronted (at any stage of their work) in terms of Multimodality. Following each presentation, 10 minutes was dedicated to Gunther and Theo’s feedback.

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Sally Osei-Appiah (M&C) looks at media representations of female West African politicians

Talks from researchers very new to Multimodality and very fresh into their PhD projects were cushioned by some more comprehensive presentations by final-year PhDs at the closing stages of their projects, as well as some postdoctoral work. Regardless of who had presented, and what positioning in relation to Multimodality their work stood at, both Gunther and Theo were generous and thorough, not only with their feedback, but with their encouragement of researchers’ ideas, too.

We hope to repeat the format of this workshop soon!

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Stefan Vollmer’s (Ed) work explores the digital literary practices of Syrian refugees in Leeds

Words by Rebecca Iszatt
Photos by Dr Giorgia Aiello (

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