Chain of semiosis

‘Semiotic chain’ refers to a process of sign-making in which the meaning is materialized in a range of different but linked texts. It is based on the assumption that meaning-making is ongoing and continuous rather than limited to one moment in time. It derives from Gunther Kress’s discussion of the way texts are ‘punctuations’ of semiosis, points of relative stasis and stability in ongoing processes of meaning-making (1997).  The term ‘semiotic chain’ is used by Pippa Stein in her work on multimodal literacy and pedagogies (2008) where it refers to the ways in which meaning is realized and fixed in a series of interconnected texts over time, and which through the affordance of particular modes and their materiality – as well as their grounding in social, cultural and aesthetic practices – anchor and afford meanings in different ways.

This term is significant for multimodality as it draws attention to ongoing processes of semiosis in which meanings are materialised and fixed across time, and to the ways in which the modes used to fix these processes transform the meanings that are made.  The points at which meaning is fixed materially are also understood to indicate important points, developments and variations in meaning-making.

Pippa Stein ( 2008), researching multimodal pedagogies, explored relationships between social semiotics, multimodality, and the teachings of multimodal literacy in contexts of cultural and linguistic diversity. She examined the chains of semiosis of individual children in relation to a prompt by their teacher, suggesting that when children use semiotic chains they are re-shaping their knowledge. The focus is on the context, process and production of meaning in texts – for example in Stein’s study she looks at how young children produce dolls drawing on traditional designs in their communities and discarded materials found in their environment.  Semiotic chains are formed by points of fixing and their relationships to other points: e.g. the making of the doll and, later, the telling of a story around the doll.  Denise Newfield used the concept in relation to processes of semiosis in which a group of Soweto youth represented their personal, cultural and national identities in post-apartheid South Africa, fixing their ideas in the Thebuwa Cloth – a polyglot, multimodal artifact made up of  a number of linked texts in different modes and genres – maps, spoken praise poems in the vernacular, clan emblems, photographs and contemporary poems in English, produced over a period of time (Newfield and Maungedzo 2006).

See also: Affordance, Mode, Materiality

Editor: Carey Jewitt
Other contributor: Denise Newfield

Key References
Kress, G. (2000)
”Text as the punctuation of semiosis: pulling at some threads” in Meinhof, U. and Smith, J. (eds) Intertextuality and the media: from genre to everyday life
Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 132-154

Stein, P. (2008)
Multimodal Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Representation, Rights and Resources
London: Routledge

Newfield, D.  and Maungedzo, R. (2006)
‘Modalising and mobilizing poetry in a Soweto classroom’
English Studies in Africa, 49.1, pp. 71-94

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