An Ontological Turn: Four Proposals

These are are our suggestions for changes in the paradigm of the meaning of meaning.

First, we have created a generalized grammar that works across all forms of meaning.

Underlying our proposal is a claim that it is possible to mean the same things across the forms of text, image, space, object, body, sound and speech. These same things we may identify as reference, agency, structure, context, and interest. However, the same things meant in one form then another are never quite the same, as the particular shape of different forms of meaning is determined by the material affordances of their media, their openings to and contraints upon meaning. Forms do not mean in the same way, and as a consequence meanings that would be the same come out slightly differently.

This is why we have multimodality—to supplement one form of meaning with another and to extend or deepen meaning even when this at the cost of some amount of redundancy. The multimodality that unfolds is not just in the juxtaposition of forms. It in the across-ness, the between-ness, and the ever-readiness for reiteration in a different form. The meanings are in the urgencies, insistences and necessities of transposition across forms.

Second, after the “language turn” of the twentieth century (Analytical Philosophy, postructuralism, and all that), we advocate an “ontological turn” for the twenty-first.

Here our claim is at once philosophical and technological. Philosophically, ontology is the living of our meanings materially manifest in media: text, image, space, object, body, sound and speech. Technologically, the power of digital media and artificial intelligence is more in the ontologies or meaning schemas that drive them than the relatively trivial elementary algorithmic calculations of mechanical reason.

Having made our ontological turn, we conclude that “language” has become an unhelpful category, so unhelpful in fact that we have suggested we should abandon it. This is because, as we have tried to argue, text and speech are so radically different. The transpositions between them are no less in their distance than any of the other form-form transpositions we have analyzed in this grammar. If anything, text is more closely aligned with image and space, and speech is more closely aligned with sound and body—hence the way we have arrayed these forms across the metaphorical shelf in our “supermarket” of meanings.

Today, the separation of digital text from speech is becoming greater than ever, in part because so much text has become practically unspeakable. So many meanings are impossible to recall in spontaneous conversation without the digital devices that have become necessary extensions of our minds, our cognitive prostheses. This is paradoxically despite (but perhaps also because of) the ease with which both text and speech can be recorded and rendered on the same devices.

Third, we have described the dynamics of what we have called functional transposition.

One aspct of this is a function of our attentions. All of reference, agency, structure, context, and interest are present in every meaning, in every form and any combination of forms. So at this macro level, transposition is a change of focus, a question of whether we are parsing a meaning by one function or another.

Then, within each function there is incessant movement and impatient expectation of movement. Instances can re-meant as concepts. Others can by empathy be re-meant as selves. Entities can be re-meant as actions. Possibilities can be re-meant as assertions. Representations can be re-meant as communication. Rhetorically expressed interests can be re-meant in reification, and a myriad of other such imminent functional transpositions.

Structuralisms of the ilk of Saussure’s or Chomsky’s attempt to classify each meaning-function as a thing, and arrange them into a system of repetitions. Poststructuralisms of the Derridean kind find in the same world of speech and text unrepeatable differences and constant change.

Beyond structuralism and poststructuralism, we make the case that the meaning of the elements of the system is in their dynamic tensions, their tortured torsions. The meaning of a function is in its readiness to change, the impending possibility of it becoming something different. It is a false hope to stabilize elements because their meaning is as much as anything in their uneasy urge towards transposition into something else. Then, by design, meanings show traces of repetition as a result of their provenance in available resources for meaning; while they have also always been uniquely (re)designed at least to some degree.

This interminable complexity does not mean we should give up on finding patterns. The meaning is in the vectors of transposability of elements in the system, not their momentary conceptual freezing as elements. And it will always be possible to account for the unique bending of meaning in a design, as well as its provenance in conventionalities. So, beyond postructuralism, there is method in the otherwise maddening instability, and this is the patterns in the vectors of movability. Among the endless possibilities, some functional transpositions are more impatient to happen than others.

Fourth, we have reframed one of the great tensions in modern Western philosophy—between antinomies that are loosely called materialism and idealism.

In this struggle, Locke and Skinner prioritize the material, while Descartes, Kant and Chomksy prioritize the ideal. Though of course, in moments of reasonableness, all parties to the discussion invoke the other side of the antinomy.

We have also found refractions of this struggle in the lives and thinking of First Peoples, as well as Arabic and Indian philosophies of meaning. (We could have searched other places and times as well, but we hope these perspectives have been enough to make our case.)

Our reframing is this: that there is no possibility of meaning-in the material without there also being the possibility of meaning-in the ideal, though at times the material can exceed the ideal (the discoverable) and the ideal can exceed the material (the imaginable). This is perhaps the most fundamental of all transpositions in a grammar of multimodality.

Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 325-27.