On Methods

On Methods: To Parse the World and To Change the World

0.0 MARY: We love Alice, not just for her story, but because her story as about the imaginable scope of meaning and the bounds of sense. Lewis Carroll is a pseudonym, but Alice’s author was a professor of philosophy.

In the two volumes of this grammar, we have told many stories. Sometimes we have set a thinker’s work in the context of their life. Other times we have told historical stories about the origins of a particular practice of media or meaning. We have also told some stories of our own intellectual development. This is a habit of ours in part because we trained as historians, and history is essentially a narrative method.

First, a definition of narrative, using some of the functional terms we have been developing in this grammar: narrative consists of a sequence of events, crossing time and place, connected by association, involving agency, and expressing conditionalities such as anxious-making possibilities, encounters with requirements, and retrospective assertion of eventuality. These are just a few of the transpositions we may trace to develop an understanding of narrative as genre. Narrative is a particular method for attributing coherence to meaning.

So now, we want to speak to various aspects of narrative as method, and to give some examples.

1.46 MARY: Here again is the overall schema for our grammar. Some of what we can discover in meaning is simultaneous. All five functions are always present. Different forms of meaning can appear in combination—this is multimodality. For the purposes of analysis, we might freeze a meaning in time and place. We give it a name, we find a place for it in one or several connected cells in the diagram. It is a habit of structuralist analysis to fix meanings in time and place like this for the purpose of analysis, to formalize separate categories so we can put them in their metaphorical boxes.

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 9-12.

2.30 MARY: However, we don’t want to leave the analysis at that – we want to trace movement, the red arrows in the visuals we have been presenting, not the labels and cells.

Across the form dimension, meanings are always begging to become something else. Architects plan a building in text and image because this is part of a process of transposing that meaning in space. A speaker about to encounter a difficult conversation rehearses in silent speech what they are about say in embodied space. A text is drafted that is about to be spoken in a presentation, a large and challenging transposition. The three-dimensional experience of a space and its objects is transposed into a photograph.

In all of these examples, we are not so much interested in the form that is, the artifact of meaning, but the processes of its transposability, not meanings as objects but meanings as possibilities, frequently likelihoods, but sometimes improbabilities.

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-7.

3.39 MARY: And now, on the function dimension, because all are always present, we can focus our attention on one of these major aspects of function at a time, asking our five questions about meaning. And within each function, we discover incessant movement.

When we ask the question, What’s this about? … or reference - a singular instance can become the plural concept.

Who or what is doing this? … or agency - something about the experience of the other can find its way into the empathetic self.

How is this connected? … or structure - we move been ideal coherences of the conceivable and the material coherences of the experienceable.

What is this connected with? …or context - this may be a representation, but this might any time soon become communication, and as such it may be open to interpretation.

And finally, what’s this for? … or interest - we might move between explicit or rhetorical meanings, and implicit meanings, seemingly baked into the world by reification. These are just a few of the many vectors of transposability we have traced in this grammar.

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 12-13.

5.01 MARY: Transposition is about movement, not mere re-application. Because, while something stays the same—we’d be lost if there were no regularity and predictability in the world—something always changes in the transposition. What are proposing is not like the poststructuralist reaction to structuralism, the infinite unpredictabilities of change contrasted with the regularities of structures.

Instead, we are interested to trace patterns in the changeability of our meanings in the world. As transpositions are about movement, we can use narrative as a method to tell the story of these movements. We can tell stories that trace lines of movement.

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 15-19.

5.50 BILL: Now, I am going to give some examples of narrative as technique.

All you have in front of you when you first see this oil painting in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is this image—it’s huge, 8 meters across, 3 meters tall—and its has a name which you can read in the label on the wall, “Big Yam Dreaming.” But we need to tell some stories to reach some of its deeper meanings.

6.16 BILL: But to explain why we even want to tell its story, here is some of our story. We travelled many long and dusty roads - indescribably beautiful roads - during our research on literacy in the many countries of indigenous Australia. This one is one of these roads, to a place called Utopia. We like this idea, a place in name to which we would all like to travel. But we suspect the person who named it thus, a white pastoralist, did so in irony, because this country needed many square kilometers to support just one head of cattle.

6.51 BILL: In 1976, ownership of the Utopia cattle station was returned to the traditional owners of the land. They had never left this land, sometimes continuing to live their traditional lives on the land, other times working for the pastoralist. Here’s the sign for the school on the main station, painted on the hood of an old car.

7.14 BILL: And this is why we were there, looking at these hybrid, multimodal and multilingual literacy practices in order to engage a new generation of indigenous teachers in this postcolonial moment as they began to work in their own communities.

7.33 BILL: Here is one of the trainee teachers outside one of the one-room schools that had been created at one of a number of outstations. Instead of travelling to a central school, the school would come to the community, the traditional country of an extended family group.

7.47 BILL: And here are two more trainee teachers at another outstation school. Again, the sign is the hood of an old car. The school is painted inside out with stunning artwork, telling not just one story but many, in a multimodal multiliteracies. In our story, this is how we came to the place where the artist of our picture lived, the painting that now hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria.

8.14 BILL: And now we are going to mention a pointed absence from the story. We are not going mention the artist’s actual name, nor show you her photograph. Since we visited Utopia, she has died. In Australian Indigenous communities, it is a tradition not to speak the name or show likenesses of a person who has died. This is a mark of respect, an absence as a presence, a way of always remembering her. We’re just going to give mention her Anglicized name, Emily. In reverence for her greatness in contemporary art, in arts circles her works are today called “Emilies.”

This is what the National Gallery of Australia says on its website: “Big Yam Dreaming demands to be considered among the great contemporary masterpieces of our time.” Yes, in abstract art, in the history of modernism, this work is now up there with Lee Krasner.

We can analyze the meaning of this painting by telling its story, and Emily’s, and the story of colonialism, and the story of contemporary art where, belatedly, this has been recognized as great art, strangely modernist art for the purity of its abstraction.

We tell the story in the first of our two grammar volumes, “Making Sense.” But for now, in an unstorylike way, I will parse aspects of this work from the point of view of our functions of meaning.

  • Reference: Emily’s totem is a yam – a creeper that grows across the desert sands, and whose edible seeds the women collect.
  • Agency: Emily is the yam - this is a self-portrait, just as the people are the land and the land, the people.
  • Structure: this is a meaning that travels between the ideal of past and future, and the material of present persons and environment.
  • Context: the desert, the people, a First People interacting with modernity, the unsettling strangeness of indigenous art in modern galleries.
  • Interest: the politics of colonial conquest and the ownership of the land, of re-asserting sovereignty, of reframing tradition as “art.”

These are just a few of the many dimensions one might need to tell this story. It takes quite a long narrative to put all these things together, or to trace enough transpositions for the painting to begin to make sense.

  • 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. 6-11.

10.33 BILL: And now, a quite different example of narrative as method, software stories. These are an integral part of the most frequent approach to contemporary software development, agile software development.

This is a story from our own software work, the CGScholar social knowledge platform that we have developed for e-learning and scholarly publishing. One of CGScholar’s apps is a social media feed called Community. This story is one we have been working on in the past few days, to make updates editable after they have been posted.

Two kinds of story intersect here. One kind of story is a unit of activity that in agile development is called a user story, the smallest implementable feature expressed in terms of a user’s interest. These stories run like this: “As a user, I need to achieve this particular thing, but I run into this barrier where my need is not yet met in the software, but a solution along the following lines would likely satisfy my need.”

The second kind of story is a design story. Someone in the software team writes up the story, team-members; stakeholders comment on the story, contributing ideas and suggestions; the story is built out as code and tested; it is demonstrated to stakeholders and refined if necessary; then it is released into production.

12.02 BILL: And now multimodal representations of body in the form of a clinical case. Every encounter with a doctor is a narrative. The patient tells a vernacular story of their ailment, the doctor tells themselves a medical version of the story, they write up the story for other members of the medical team in a patient record, then the story of the treatment and response to treatment can be told.

This image is from a clinical case analysis undertaken by a medical student. The story begins with the patient, “I’m here for my 6 month diabetes follow-up...” Then the student analyzes the data, represents the case multimodally in text, diagram, image and tabular data, makes a differential diagnosis, and recommends a course of action. The student then gets a second opinion from a peer and revises their case analysis.

Here are two intersecting stories, the patient-doctor medical story, and the learning story from draft, to peer review, to revision, upon which the student can reflect on the story of their having learned.

13.14 BILL: And lastly, design itself can be reported as narrative. We can parse the available designs, the forms and functions of meaning as resources available to a designer, the provenance of the work they are about to do in their designing. What are the affordances, the potentials, the openings for meaning? What are the constraints of media, context, or the pressures of conflicting interests?

Not that parsing implies there will be mere replication, reproduction, repetition. Quite the contrary, to anticipate designing as action, is to imply that change is needed and to expect that change is coming. Parsing should be not statically object-oriented. In a transpositional grammar it is to anticipate change – that it may be desirable, that it may be necessary, that it will inevitably happen.

14.06 BILL: Next, the business of designing involves taking these meaning resources then recombining them. At least in some ways the design is always new. What are the processes, what is this part of the story of meaning-activity?

Emily’s image brings together the resources of indigenous culture and oil painting, self-portrait and postcolonial hope. The user story in agile software development traces user experience as narrative, and the narrative of software development and implementation. The clinical case tells medical conditions as narratives, and the narrative of clinical reasoning in a collaborative learning environment that models the professional medical communication.

In every case, a design analysis can by means of narrative trace multiple layers of transformation, of multimodal transposition across forms of meaning, and the transposition of meaning functions.

15.00 BILL: Then we can parse again, we have traces of meaning are left in the world. As a consequence, the world has been the (re-)designed. We have Emily’s painting, the software that has been developed, the person whose body has been healed and the medical student who has learned from documenting their case.

Now, we can parse the new designs, not for the fixity of the artifacts they have become, but for their trajectories and their possibilities, what they could have been and may yet become, the new meanings not yet made, but begging to be made some time soon. The meaning is in the making, and the making is across a series of transpositions.

This, if you like, is the metanarrative of meaning.

  • 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. 70-71.