Front Cover

Gunther Kress's Literacy in the New Media Age

New York: Routledge, 2003.  186 pages.  $31.95
ISBN: 0-415-25356-X (paperback)



Review by Michael Charlton, University of Oklahoma




About Kress 

Gunther Kress is a Professor of English Education at the University of London's Institute of Education and Head of School for the School of Language, Culture, and Communication at the same university.  His extensive previous publications include Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication (Arnold, 2001; co-authored with Theo van Leeuwen) and Reading Images: The Grammar of Graphic Design (Routledge, 1996; also co-authored with van Leeuwen). In 2005, Kress was the subject of a special issue of Computers and Composition (Volume 22, Issue 1).


Kress posits a social trend away from the dominance of the written word (language-as-writing) and towards technological modes that stress the visual and the integration of multiple modes at the same time (multimedia, hypertext, etc.).  According to Kress, while reading in the language-as-writing mode is fixed both by time and by strict standards of interpretation, reading in the multi-modal era departs from the unique significance of the image to a much more open field of interpretation.

The decline of literacy as the major mode of communication or “meaning” signals the need to consider the nature, potential uses, and constraints of other modes of communication.  How do modes help to create, shape, and convey meaning?  This could be important to appreciating how the different modes of communication present within a composition classroom can be both useful and constraining in teaching college writing.

Literacy is influenced by the material conditions of written culture and the conventional definitions of literacy which exist at a given time and in a given framework; the contemporary dominance of the visual leads to a consideration of how "writing" and "language" are both the same and different.  If we are to effectively utilize the social and individual resources our students bring to their writing, we must understand the connection between these resources and the larger written culture. 

New modes of technology complicate our attempts to label instances of genres and also attempts to categorize these instances within a specific mode.  Education must adapt to such genre-blending modes to combine both “high” and “low” cultural texts.  Kress' own book illustrates this adaptation, as it includes an incredible mix of examples drawn from both "high" and "low" cultural texts.  While he cites cultural theory and literacy research, he also integrates student writing and drawing, Biology textbooks, horoscopes, and street signs as well as more innovative forms like CD-ROMs and video games. 

The new modes represent a fundamental semiotic and epistemic shift, in which readers/writers are no longer simply informed about the world but also have the radical potential to re-make and re-interpret the world; Kress uses the old “showing vs. telling” rule-of-thumb to illustrate what he sees as the basic change.  Readers are now able to determine their own criteria for evaluation.  Within the composition classroom, we must encourage this self-selection and freedom of choice, as well as the unfamiliar forms that these may take.

There is no shortage of books about the changing nature of literacy and the need to reconsider conventional notions of writing given the predominance of the visual and the creation of new technological modes of communication.  Previous work by scholars such as Lester Faigley, Cynthia Selfe, Laura J. Gurak, Kathleen E. Welch, and many others has made a strong case for new forms of literacy in composition and rhetoric.   Though Kress is indebted to such theories, he also begins to supplement them with work drawn from a wide range of criticism - among other fields, he cites scholars from high cultural theory (Barthes, Foucault), linguistics, pedagogy,  semiotics, and communication.  His integration of other academic disciplines with composition-rhetoric helps to further contextualize the changing nature of technology and literacy.  As mentioned before, his book is also an object lesson about including multiple modes of communication within a single text.  Given the constraints of the print form, Kress still manages to illustrate this concept of multimodality through copious illustrations.

Of course, there are possible objections to the book.  What are the limits of multimodal communication and who is being excluded from it by the social conditions that Kress himself stresses as a key factor in literacy modes?  Some readers may wonder about the accessibility of multimodal communication in less privileged discourse communities.  Others may question the relative absence of discussion about gender or race after composition-rhetoric scholars such as Gurak and Welch have written about the ideological hegemony present in many such technological communities (i.e., the exclusion or "flaming" of women in cyberspace).  Are these new literacy modes and multimodality open to everyone?  Do they necessarily exclude people trained in the language-as-writing mode?

There is a larger but related question.  How might multimodal communication prove to be oppressive as well as liberatory?  While recognizing the limitations and problems of the language-as-writing mode, Kress does not much discuss the limitations and problems of this new mode.  What happens when the freedom of self selection conflicts with the dominant ideology and/or with classroom goals?  Kress assumes an active and critical maker.  What role do passive reception or exploitative uses of the technology play in this new age?  Before we wholly embrace multimodality as a practice in composition-rhetoric classrooms, we should consider the potential harms as well as the potential benefits.         


Unlike many books on the subject which surrender to either bleak technological determinism or unbounded optimism about the possibilities of such technological literacy shifts, Kress strikes a careful yet hopeful balance: " . . . we are the makers of meaning, and we can move into that period with a theory that puts us and our sign-making at the center - not free to do as we would wish, but not as the victims of forces beyond our control, either.  That is the point and the task of theory.  That will need to be the guide of our practices" (176).  This call to re-consider the nature of literacy and writing in a cautiously optimistic manner in order to improve our classrooms is perhaps the most crucial point a rhetoric-composition reader will encounter in Kress.