A Michael (M.A.K.) Halliday Special

M.A.K. Halliday

This issue of SemiotiX, the first to which I am contributing in my capacity as Associate Editor, focuses on the contribution to semiotics by the Australian linguistic M.A.K.  Halliday.   Three guest scholars provide tasters of what his work is about, what ideas underpin it and the way it has been adopted to look at visual communication.  Halliday’s approach to communication has particular interest for me as a scholar and especially in terms of the kinds of semiotic work I would like to see more of myself which would involve careful description of the available repertoires of the semiotic tools used in different concrete settings and the politics of these choices.

In the first place, I work within the broad critical linguistic field known as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA).   In this approach, the aim is to carry out close analysis of language in use, of speeches, news texts, and talk in order to draw out the buried ideologies that may not necessarily be so obvious to casual reader or listener.   Much writing in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) owes a debt to Michael Halliday who placed an emphasis on looking not so much at language in terms of its structures but as a system of options.   Here, there is a strong sense that words and grammar should not be thought of as having fixed meanings or structures but rather as having meaning potentials which people use to communicate their own motivated views of the world.  Every communicative act is an act of meaning.   Each act is part of an on-going process of modifying and making communicative tools.    But since communication is motivated, this is essentially about promoting world views; it is about what kind of social reality gets shaped out of this process of meaning making.   In the opening contribution, Lise Fontaine introduces Halliday’s basic ideas and how they allow us to break down language into acts of meaning making.   The aim of CDA is to point to the kinds of choices available and show how they are used in specific instances.    One way of putting this is that we show in detail the linguistic semiotic choices used to construct a particular set of actions, circumstances, participants etc.

Hodge and Kress (1988) emphasised that communicators, or sign-makers, are motivated not just by the available semiotic resources but also by their particular socio-cultural origins.   Critical Discourse Analysis added a splash of Marxism and the idea of the ruling groups in society seeking to promote and naturalise their own views of the world.  Some  early examples of this work are from Gunter Kress and Robert Hodge in their 1988 volume ‘Social Semiotics’.   Of course, the core idea of this has inspired what is now known and practiced, particularly in Anglo-Australian contexts, as Sociosemiotics which Cobley and Randiviir (2009) describe as the study of the ways signs are deployed in social formations.    What is emphasised in this approach is providing an account of the underlying options available as a system of meaning potentials and then showing which ones of these are activated.

In the second place, my interest in M.A.K. Halliday’s works comes through my research in the loose field that has been called ‘Multimodality’.  This is, to some extent,  an emergent area mainly populated by Halliday-inspired linguists who are looking at Halliday’s work, the rules he spelled out for the ways in which semiotic system  operate, in as much as this can help us to think about other modes, or forms of communication. But there are also a range of scholars from across fields such as anthropology, education, and music, to mention just a few, who have been interested in exploring these ways of looking more precisely at the details of communication and meaning making in different sensorial modes.   How does the layout of the classroom or any room, the kinds of colours, shapes, surfaces, etc., influence what takes place, what we do in that place, and the meanings we produce?  Is there any way we can document the meaning potentials of these built environments as sets of options?    And most importantly perhaps, —  an approach which characterises some of the work done by Kay O Halloran who provides our second piece in this feature — what are the differences in the ways that different modes work and how do they work together to build meaning?   In the third instalment of this profile, Andrea Mayr offers an introduction into the way that Halliday’s work can be used to analyse both texts and images in order to draw out the buried ideologies.    The model that Andrea offers, reflecting her own work, could be described as Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis.

David Machin

For my part, what I most take from all this kind of work is the attention to detail, the emphasis on turning our eye to the minutiae of communication, whatever the mode, with an emphasis on describing all of what we see or hear through the meaning potentials that we find used, seen as a system of options.    Many years ago I began my academic career investigating language use in anthropology departments.   Here we were concerned with the arbitrary ways humans construct their societies and the way they went about their collective lives.  We would analyse the stories they told, the representations they produced, the objects, tools and buildings they made.   Even the simplest of activities such as buying a loaf of bread at the local shop was viewed as a complex accomplishment relying on understandings achieved through a range of shared assumptions and use of communicative cues.    One way of looking at doing semiotics is as a more careful process of documenting these communicative process and tools.   For me, social semiotics is one way to bring more detail, rigor and even prediction to these observations.   If we can identify some of the underlying systems of choices and the meaning potentials they offer we can use these to create inventories that can guide the deliberate and self-conscious use of them.   Using its own set of principles this has after all been the aim of much work in visual design especially where marketing is concerned.    I hope that the short vistas provided here will point those interested in the direction of finding out more.

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