Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reading :: Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice

Exploring Semiotic Remediation as Discourse Practice
By Paul A. Prior and Julie A. Hengst

In this 2010 collection, the authors discuss semiotic remediation—that is, how symbols can be taken up in an activity and, through that taking up, "produce altered conditions for future action" (p.1). This work is grounded in the dialogic semiotics of Voloshinov and Bakhtin (pp.2-3) and the notion of remediation as discussed in Bolter & Grushin as well as genre theory's taking up of genre assemblages (pp.7-8).

The collection features contributions from rhetoric and writing studies; communication studies; speech and hearing; anthropology; and cognitive sociology. In this review, I'll zero in on two of those contributions.

Julie Hengst's "Semiotic remediation, conversational narratives and aphasia" examines the phenomenon of aphasia, in which acquired brain damage results in lost ability to understand and/or express speech. "Clinical accounts often describe individuals with aphasia as being able to communicate better than they talk, that is, as individuals whose communicative competence is better than, though masked by disruptions in, their language abilities" (p.109). Aphasia, Hengst argues, "disrupts not only the isolated performance of individuals but also the typical communicative practices of all participants in an interaction," and thus "individuals with aphasia and their communication partners must work together to reorchestrate the semiotic resources of communicative interactions and redistribute the burden of meaning-making in interaction" (p.109). That is, because communication is social, aphasia-related communication disruptions are addressed socially. In a social performance,
communicative competence can exceed linguistic performance in interactions of individuals with aphasia. The ability of individuals with aphasia to engage in complex, frame-shifting discourse practices so successfully and yet with sometimes quite limited linguistic signaling also helps us to see beyond the bright lights of language, to recognize how much communicative weight other semiotics can and routinely do bear. (p.110)
Hengst illustrates this point with "narrative tellings" taken from semistructured interviews and observations of pairs that included an individual with aphasia and one without (p.117). Through descriptions and transcriptions, Hengst demonstrates how the participants combined narrative, gestures, and other symbolic resources (such as a map) to jointly tell stories.

Paul Prior's "Remaking IO: Semiotic remediation in the design process" examines how a multimedia design team jointly produced objects (p.207). Specifically, Prior examines this team in terms of situated practice, in which writing is treated as a verb (activity) rather than a noun (artifact) (p.209). By closely examining videos of the team's design interactions—presented here as screen grabs combined with the transcript—Prior gives us a detailed picture of these interactions. In one case, "the drawing/text on the whiteboard ... involved at least 29 different actions that touched the surface of the whiteboard, movements made by two people ... over a period of less than three minutes of interaction" (p.219). And these movements were coordinated with further movements, including a laptop screen and gestures in the air. "Inscription at the whiteboard then emerged in sequential, temporal, co-present interactive acts; it represented writing-as-activity rather than writing as only artifact" (p.219).

Prior connects this empirical work back to the notion of chronotopic lamination that he had developed earlier with some of the other contributors to this book: "the simultaneous management of multiple social frames and footings as laid out by Goffman ... and Goodwin and Duranti..." (p.228). Here, chronotopes are linked or laminated. Chronotopes can be representational (narrative) or embodied (experiental), but they can also be embedded in affordances, such as when the chronotope of the road is embedded in "such sociomaterial forms as roads, signage, maps, and inns for travelers" (p.228). And "in activity all three of these chronotopic dimensions are necessarily fused" (p.229, his emphasis).

Thus "inscription and semiotic production [are] both situated in local interaction and dispersed across time" (p.233). The team Prior studied used multiple mediational means to semiotically remediate their design processes. But, he adds, "this kind of heterogeneous and heterochronic mix of mediational means, this kind of semiotic remediation, is a pervasive feature of human social practice, not an anomalous development of the digital age" (p.233). People demonstrate "semiotic agility" in switching between semiotic worlds; "managing multiplicity is simply part of everyday existence" (p.233).

Overall, this was a really interesting and useful book. I haven't done justice to all of the contributors in this review, but the two chapters I have overviewed should give you an idea of what the rest of the book offers. Pick it up!

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