Agency (Who or What is doing this?)


0.0 MARY: Agency is about patterns of action. An event is a setting in which something happens – these patterns of happening we call transactivity and predication. Agency also involves actors in the form of persons or things – here, we differentiate the roles actors can take. And there are different patterns of conditionality, whether the event definitely is happening or has happened and it is “must” or just a “might be.”

0.52 MARY: Let’s look at the patterns of predication and transactivity in events.

In sentences, we have subject followed by predicate, also sometimes called theme and rheme, or given and new. “The girl threw the ball.” “The girl” is the subject, setting up the theme or the given in the sentence, then “threw the ball” is the predicate, or the rheme, or the new information that we add to the given. We must know who the girl is already, then the fact that she threw the ball is the new information that the sentence is designed to convey. How does this pattern of meaning work in image? Let me show you an image, and talk about the parallels with text.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 180-82.

1.40 MARY: Here is a painting by J.M.W. Turner, hanging in the National Gallery in London. Painted in 1844, it is titled “Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway.” The Great Western Railway had only been opened a few years before. Now let me turn this image into writing so I can talk about the way in which text can mean the same thing, but also quite differently.

2.11 MARY: “The train is crossing the bridge, and the sun is coming through the clouds. Soon the train will be gone, and the storm will have passed.” Subjects: “the train,” “the clouds.” Predicates: “is crossing the bridge,” “will be gone.” These are the two simultaneous events that Turner has put together in his painting, the train and the storm …

2.35 MARY: How does the image represent predication? The focal point of the image is the train - this is what in terms of visual design is often called the figure. The ground is the setting that gives meaning to this particular image of the train – it is crossing the bridge.

2.52 MARY: And now transactivity, in the sentence we have an action structure, where the train (in the nominative case) is crossing (in the active voice) the bridge (in the accusative case). In the image, we have a volume, the train moving along a vector. The railway line comes from a vanishing point in the image. We assume it is moving along and past the position of the artist/viewer. (We can be confident from this vector that the train is not going to run over Turner or the viewer.)

3.27 MARY: But here is a profound difference between image and text. Text unfolds in time. Image is arrayed in space. In an image, the entities are volumes — the locomotive, the train behind it, the rail line, the bridge, the cloudy sky, the sun beginning come out from behind the clouds. And if you look carefully as well, there is a group of people boating on the river, slowly one presumes, a farmer is ploughing his field, slowly too, and a rabbit scurrying away, fast enough not to be hit by the train. This extra information would clutter our text, distract from the main point, which is the passing train. Image does space in a great deal of detail. It also asks the viewer to pick out the figure from the ground, while at the same time providing them a whole lot more spatial detail if they care to linger and ponder on the deeper meanings of the picture. But time is less obvious – who knows whether the train might not be stopped because it has broken down, or whether the storm might get worse rather than blow away?

4.39 MARY: Text, on the other hand, cannot have the same degree of spatial detail without distracting from its message. But it can be much clearer about time. This is for the simple reason that word follows word – you write and read a sentence across time.

Where image in its very mechanics prioritizes spatiality, text prioritizes temporality. Text is linear. Image is simultaneous. Both can express meanings time and space, but each is better at some of these jobs than the other. The meanings about the train are the same, but text and image do them differently.

So to say this in the terms we want to use in this grammar, both text and image can represent structures of predication. But their affordances are different. This is why artists give titles to their work, or curators write descriptions of artworks for the signs on the gallery wall, or art historians write books. The image itself is never enough.

5.44 MARY: And finally, to broaden our reading of this image and text, considering now the train as an object in space. Turner must have been impressed by trains as objects speeding across the landscape, and by the Great Western Railway as a marvel of modernity. This is perhaps why he decided to transfer the vivid experience of travelling on a train at speed to an image, transposing the three dimensionality of speeding across space onto the two dimensionality of the canvas. Meaning is a traffic across these different forms. Predication happens in all. In the case of Turner’s painting, the transposition was from space and object to image…

6.34 MARY: ... but for the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the transposition was the other way around – the locomotive and the bridge had been built from his plans, a transposition had been in the other direction, from image to object and space.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 177-79.

6.52 BILL: Now I am going to look at the other aspect of the structure of event, transactivity. The example I am is going to use is from the Jacques Tati film, “Mon Oncle”. This is a film of very few words, but a lot of embodied movement in space and interaction with objects.

7.12 BILL: A very fancy lady pulls up at the door of a very fancy house. She rings the bell.

The pretentious lady of the house switches on the fish fountain first, before pressing a button to open the gate.

How very modern, for 1958! You can see, this is a very particularly nuanced structure of event, the interaction of space and object, the embodied demeaning of the visitor and the host.

Now, in the same frame of objects and space, the husband arrives home from his day at work – he is the boss of a plastic hose factory.

He waits, while his wife goes to put on the fountain first, before pressing the switch that will open the gate.

Silly, because there was no need to turn the fountain on for him…

8.07 BILL: In text, we have a relatively limited range of resources for expressing what we call “transactivity.” These include “voice” (active, passive, and possibly other permutations); and “case” (nominative, accusative, and others), and “transitivity” (transitive, intransitive, and possibly other things). In moving image, we can capture much more nuanced meanings. Let’s see another version of coming through this gate.

8.38 BILL: Gerard is the son of the husband and wife we have just seen, and his uncle (played by director Jacques Tati) is now bringing him home from school – same routine: press the doorbell, the wife instinctively turns on the fountain…

The uncle takes fright at the fish… and the horrifying modernity of it all, and scurries away, back to his house in comfortingly grubby old Paris.

The basic structures of transactivity are the same – multimodal transpositions between bodies, objects, and spaces. But they are never simply repetitions – from event to event, transactivity captures both their commonalities and their differences. It the nuanced differences that make this movie funny. Cinema is particularly good at this. We can see what Tati is trying to say as a film director. Architects should also consider this range of differences as well, if they are to create houses that different kinds of people find comfortable.

Our point – this is how we might parse transactivity as a traffic across these different forms of meaning, and then represent the multimodality of it all in cinema... or architecture.

  • Reference: Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2020, Making Sense: Reference, Agency and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-04.