The material form which carries the sign. Kress & van Leeuwen argue that the material medium (paper, stone, ink, etc) is traditionally neglected in linguistics and semiotics, but that it makes an important contribution to the meaning. They associate it (in Reading Images) with ‘technologies of inscription’; and (in Multimodal Discourses) with the stratum of Production.

The medium selected to carry the message also plays a role in the distribution of that message, both influencing and influenced by the context of communication. The use of the human voice to communicate face-to-face will mean something different from the same voice recorded and disseminated on a website or TV broadcast to unknown, undifferentiated audiences. The same message will mean something different if presented as written language on paper; and again on a website. Texts as messages are shaped both in terms of their imagined audience as well as in terms of the potentials and facilities of the means and media of dissemination.   Medium, then, cannot be understood simply as a technology (of production and distribution); but must also be understood as social practice. In this respect it relates to the commonly understood notion of the media as a cultural phenomenon.  Jenkins suggests “a model of media that works on two levels: on the first, a medium is a technology that enables communication; on the second, a medium is a set of associated “protocols” or social and cultural practices that have grown up around that technology.” (Convergence Culture, 2006).

Medium also relates to the commonly used notion of Multimedia. From a social semiotic multimodal perspective this is a form of naming based on a conflation of medium (of production and dissemination) and mode (of representation). From that perspective, the term bears the traces of a still relatively recent history in which there was a congruence of a kind between medium – eg radio – and mode – eg speech, music; or of the medium of book and the mode of writing. While this congruence still holds good in some media, it has been largely superseded by the integration of  different modes and media in single tools of production (eg a computer or an authoring software), display (eg authored storage media such as DVDs) or transmission (eg digital television, online games, or online dictionaries). Again, Jenkins describes the cultural processes in which such media are integrated in popular cultural practice in Convergence Culture.

Editor: Andrew Burn
Reviewer: Elise Seip Tønnessen

Key References

Kress, K and van Leeuwen, T (1996) Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge

Kress, G. and van Leuween, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourses, London: Arnold

Jenkins, H (2006) Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press.