Multimodal Rhetoric: A Blog

April 2023: Design Choices are Not Fixed or Set: Flexibility and Hybrid Textuality

A promotional image from Everyman Hybrid

I want to write a bit about the design choices that we’ve been reading and writing about so far this semester.


Emphasis: What are the emphasized modes, and emphasized elements (the specific ways that the modes are expressed, ie content through form) of this text?

Contrast: How are elements of the text arranged to make each other stand out?

Organization: How are elements of the text arranged to form a coherent unit or functioning whole?

Alignment: How do elements of the text line up (visually or otherwise)?

Proximity: How does the text use space to make it more accessible or usable?

To use these effectively in a way that will add value to your analyses of any kind of multimodal text, it’s helpful to realize that you can’t take these in a very literal or limited way. If you are looking at a traditional still photograph, all of this above takes place in a two dimensional (flat) and bounded surface, so it’s pretty simple to assess everything within that limitation. That’s more or less how we gravitate to thinking about the visual modality, but as we move beyond that space into more complicated or hybrid texts, the frame changes (literally, we’re no longer framed by the boundaries of a two-dimensional limited space!)

For example, let’s take the video we’ve been discussing, Found Footage. There are multiple contexts for discussing this video. We can look at it as limited by the beginning, middle, and end of the video–easy enough. We don’t need to look at the series of which is it a part (The Backrooms web series). To stay within the boundaries of the video, we still have a more complex task than we did looking at a photograph, because each frame of the video is a separate still shot and can be analyzed ON ITS OWN, on its own terms without outside context. That’s just visually; we also have sound throughout the video. We see people and objects moving through the frames, so that is gesture and we see a representation of space, too. These elements work together to create a narrative, which is accompanied by words spoken by the characters or read on the walls (linguistic). These work together and bounce off each other to create meaningful experiences for the viewer. A video simulates or records three dimensions, moving through time, so of course it is going to be more complex structurally.

But you can also look at the whole series of videos as a kind of supertext. Once you begin doing this, you’ll naturally gravitate to seeing patterns and simultaneities within the videos that play off each other. You’ll notice shifts in the way that the modalities are represented (for example, you’ll see a “flashback” to the 1970s in videos that use a different filter to make the video look old). Separate videos will be used to fill in gaps in a story that is told in a non-linear fashion, and will alter your initial reading of the first video or add layers to it. The terms “organization” and “alignment,” which made sense in the first video for what happened within and between its frames, can now be used to analyze an organization of story, themes, and tones between the videos, with alignment happening between parts of separate videos to return to a central theme, character, environmental cue, or even a symbol (for example, the corporation is a key force in the story but can also be seen as a symbol of humans’ desire to control and conquer nature).

Some multimodal texts may have even a more “complicated” structure than The Backrooms! For example, the alternative reality games and transmedia storytelling can leave the environmental of one media platform altogether and take place in a wide variety of environments. There are huge commercial examples of this, like the Stars Wars universe and the Marvel Universe, but there are also ones created by amateurs that have become well-known. Here is an article introduction. The television series LOST (2004) was one of the early shifts in series television to embrace off-screen audience participation using the internet. A group of young amateurs created the Slenderman web series/arg called Everyman Hybrid which is considered a true arg–it combined YouTube, Twitter, and series of audience participation events to tell a story than spanned TEN YEARS! (This series should have some trigger warnings for murder, mayhem, demonic possession, and a lot of other disturbing stuff. Yes, I watched the entire thing myself.) A complete web series or ARG can take a great deal of commitment to understand and analyse fully, so I would not advise that level of commitment for your upcoming papers! However, if you are already committed to one, you can certain analyze some specific aspect or portion of such a creation. One of the cool things about analyze a series is that they can make terrific use of timing or “kairos” as a part of their organization and structure, and successful args and webseries usually demonstrate a deft awareness of audience on the part of the creators.

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